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Update Coming to ‘Delight is in the Details’

Delight is in the Details

This coming Wednesday, July 23, 2014, is the launch date for the update to my book and interview series, Delight is in the Details.

I’ve been working on this update for the last couple of months, and the end is finally in sight. And so I wanted to share with you guys a sneak peek at what exactly is going to be included in the update.

  • Two new chapters: “How to Stay Creative and Build Delightful Products” — this is the preeminent chapter of the entire book. It’s the chapter that should have been in there when I first wrote the book, but I guess I needed another year to muse on this topic in order to discover the contents and focus of this chapter. This chapter is my best answer to the almost impossible questions: How do you do your best creative work every day? How do you make delightful products? I’ve also written a chapter on “Finding Your Fanatics”, that talks about how sweating the details in your work is one of the ways to grow your audience and/or customer base.

  • Three videos: These are short videos I made for this project. They cover (a) How To Stay Creative, (b) The Power of a Focused Life, and (c) In-House Design Teams. You can check out a teaser trailer for one of them here.

  • The audio tracks have all been re-mastered (this includes audio book and the audio interviews). I learned some Garage Band tricks since first producing the audio book, and I’ve found a website — Auphonic — hat does magic with the equalizing and volume boosting and leveling of spoken word audio tracks. I began using this on the Shawn Today podcasts a few months ago and the increased quality of the audio was instantly noticeable.

  • There are two new audio interviews: one with Matt Alexander and one with Jared Sinclair.

  • There are now transcripts of all the audio interviews. Perfect for those who prefer to read not listen. It also creates a searchable archive of the conversations if you ever want or need to reference them.

  • A new section: The Makers Q&A interviews featuring Tim Van Damme, Jeff Sheldon, Jane Portman, Sean McCabe, Kyle Steed, and more. Because great products are forged in the details, I reached out to a handful of my personal design heroes to ask them what it means to sweat the details, what delight in design looks like for their work, and how they spend their day to do their best creative work.

  • Updated book content with examples from the latest versions of iOS and OS X.

  • The Resource Index: a list of recommended websites, books, forums, and other resources that will help you find fresh inspiration, advance your current skill set, and/or get plugged into a community of peers.

* * *

This all started with little more than my intention fix a few typos, re-master the audio, and get the interview transcribed. It has instead turned into a massive update, and I’m extremely excited about it. This “2.0″ version of Delight is in the Details is what the 1.0 should have been.

With the updated content, this book and interview series feels much more complete now. It was predominately about making a case for sweating the details. But it now also gives you an understanding of what that actually looks like when done well, and, most importantly lays before you a roadmap for how you can change the mindset and habits of your own personal work life and even your company’s culture.

The new version comes out this Wednesday, July 23. I’m raising the price to $39, but on launch day it will be on sale for 25-percent off. Everyone who has already bought Delight is in the Details will get the update for free.

A Brief Review of the Synology DS213j

Synology DiskStation DS213j

A few months ago, on one of the more nerdy episodes of Shawn Today episodes, I was discussing local backup solutions, my need for a better backup hard drive, and some of the research I was doing on Network Attached Storage drives (NAS) since that’s the direction I was leaning.

All the data in my house consists of:

  • Files I’m using right now
  • Files my wife is using right now
  • Files we want to keep, but don’t use often (if ever)
  • Media (photos, music, movies)
  • Backups of all of the above

The files we’re using now live on our computers, obviously. The rest should be kept on another drive. I, however, had the rest kept on 5 different drives. Ugh. There were two old USB drives with different folders of archived data; two USB drives that I used for my nightly super duper clones; and a Time Capsule that was used for our Time Machine backups, except it bit the dust about a year ago, I hadn’t set anything up to replace it until recently.

I wanted to consolidate all of that stuff into one backup and storage kit that had more functionality beyond being just an external drive and could be expanded if I needed it to. Plus, I wanted to have redundancy with all this stuff — to know that all my old files and all our media and everything else wasn’t just being stored, but was also being backed up here at home and to an off-site service.

And so, now you know why I was leaning towards a NAS, and not just a bigger USB drive.

Well, at first I was thinking of getting a refurbished Mac mini and a basic thunderbolt RAID to attach to it. I knew I’d be able to use it as a media server, a backup destination, and that I’d be able to log in remotely from my iOS devices or my Mac. And, I knew that I could put backup software on the Mac that would do local clones of the RAID and offsite backups of it as well. But I wasn’t ready to spend $1,500 for that setup.

I’d been hearing a lot of great things about Synology and their DiskStations (especially since the software that runs on them was updated about a year ago).

After doing more research it was clear that what I wanted was the Synology DS213j. It would be capable of handling everything I wanted from a Mac mini + RAID setup, but it was much more affordable ($200 plus the price of two drives ($125/ea.).

The Synology DS213j has a gigabit ethernet port and two USB ports. I have it plugged directly into my Google Fiber modem. Which means not only does the Synology have it’s own Gigabit connection to the World Wide Web, I have a gigabit connection to the Synology from within my home. But that’s just the start.

It’s that operating system that separates a Synology from your basic NAS or RAID. With DSM 5 (the software that runs on the Synology), you can install apps and services onto that let you do some pretty clever things with all the files you’re storing on there. And that’s a big part of what makes a Synology more than just a fancy external hard drive. It’s literally a file server. And, it get’s better: there is a whole suite of iOS apps as well. But more on that in a bit.

Setting up the Synology

A site member who was listening to my aforementioned Shawn Today episode had recently purchased a Synology DiskStation but was no longer using it. He emailed me and offered to send it at no charge. I, of course, gratefully accepted his generous gift.

That was 3 months ago. I’ve since been using the Synology quite a bit and it’s time I shared some of the cool things it can do and give a look at how I am using it in real life.

For starters, I put 2 of the 3 TB Western Digital Red drives in there. Between all our media and all our archived files, we only have about 700GB of unique data to store. And so a 3TB disc is plenty and the WD Reds are one of the drives that BackBlaze recommends.

Putting two WD Red drives into the Synology

Here’s a quick rundown of how I’m using my Synology:

  • Consolidated 2 old USB hard drives I had that were storing random, archived files (like design projects I did back in 2006).

  • Created a Time Machine partition for me and one for my wife’s MacBook Air.

  • Created a partition for cloning my MacBook Air with a browsable folder structure.

  • Offloaded my entire music library and photo library, freeing up some much needed disk space on my MacBook Air. If I want to listen to music in iTunes I can see the Synology as a shared library. Also, I simply moved the photos in my Lightroom library to the Synology’s Data drive, and I can see all the images from past years right there within Lightroom still.

    Synology and iTunes

    Synology and Lightroom

But that is all pretty standard stuff for a NAS or RAID. Here’s what I’m utilizing from the department of Things the Synology Does That Are Cool:

Synology’s automatic backups of itself

For local backup: I plugged in a Lacie USB drive to the back of the Synology and set it up to do nightly local backups of the Synology itself. This is fantastic. As any nerd will tell you, a RAID is not a backup — even though you’ve got 2 or more drives in the enclosure (helping ensure that if one of the drives dies, you don’t lose your data), if the enclosure itself were to suffer catastrophic failure (power surge, bug, freak accident of nature, whatever) then it’s possible that all the drives in the RAID could lose their data. So, really, you want to have a local backup of your RAID.

For off-site backup: I set up an automatic off-site backup to Google Drive. It can also back up to Amazon Glacier, Dropbox, and other services, but I went with Google Drive because I have 1TB of free space thanks to Google Fiber. My Synology only backs up the files that are specific to it, (meaning it doesn’t send the Time Machine partitions there).

Synology on iOS

Synology also makes a whole suite of 8 different iOS apps that are for basic things like accessing the files and media on your DiskStation to nerdy things like monitoring your DiskStation or viewing your network security cameras.

The Synology iOS Apps

(From left to right: DS file, DS photo+, and DS audio. The apps are universal and work on iPad, too.)

  • DS file: this gives you complete access to the entire file structure of your Synology. You can log in over the local network, or, if you have QuickConnect set up, you can access your Synology from anywhere in the world.

  • DS audio lets you stream (and download) all the audio files on your Synology. And, unlike the photo package, when you set up the Audio package, it auto-detects the MP3s on the Synology and is ready to go immediately.

  • DS photo+ lets you browse all the images on your Synology, as well as enable instant upload from your iPhone and iPad’s camera rolls. It’s basically your own Photo Stream replacement service, except that it’s not super easy to automatically upload photos in-to (that I know of).

    Another small gripe I have with the photo app is that, for whatever reason, after installing the Photo bundle on the Synology itself, you then have to manually import or move your photos out of the file structure of the Synology and into the Photo app (which exists as its own partition on the Synology). Once added to the Photos partition, the Synology has to convert those images (which I’m not even sure what it’s doing to confer them, and it takes a very long time). It’d be nice if it would just let me tell it where all my photos are and then it automagically does the rest.

    However, since the photos and photo albums exist simply as a hierarchy of folders, you can add photos through the Finder directly via the mounted Synology. I haven’t gotten this far yet, but I see some great options for automating the photo importing and structuring process using some Hazel rules. I should be able to automatically get my iOS photo stream images in there as well. We’ll see.

To get the iOS apps to work, you also need to install the corresponding packages (a.k.a. apps) onto the Synology itself. With the photo viewer, for example, it’s a separate web app that houses all the photos from your Synology. You start by manually uploading photos to the album and then once they are there, you can browse them from your Mac, the Web, or iOS devices. And anyone with the login info to that photo album can view the photos (so good news for families).

Read / Write Speeds

For the first two months I was connecting to the Synology over my 2.4Ghz Wi-Fi (because I’m an idiot), and the connection was pathetic at best: 2-3 MB/s read and write.

A few weeks ago I dropped a Gigabit port by my desk and ran CAT 6 from my router (which is in a different area of the house) to the port. I then got a Thunderbolt Ethernet port (that came with this awesome Belkin Thunderbolt Dock) for my MacBook Air so I could take full advantage of Google Fiber’s gigabit internet.

The advantage of the Gigabit drop is that I’m now also getting significantly better read/write speeds to the Synology (obviously). I can now read/write to the DiskStation at 85 MB/s and 45 MB/s respectively. Which is pretty great.

If I’m on my 5Ghz Wi-Fi connection I can read/write at 24 MB/s and 15MB/s respectively.

Wrap

Since the Synology is attached directly to my modem, it has its own connection to the Internet. But all NAS drives connect direct to the modem (usually). The Synology is cool because, since it has its own operating system, it doesn’t require a dedicated Mac in order for the files to be accessible from my home or from anywhere else in the world. While it’s not quite as powerful as a Headless Mac mini plus NAS setup would be, it is about $1,000 less expensive. And if you’re just wanting to dip your toe in the water with this stuff, from where I’m sitting, a Synology DiskStation is a great place to start.

So, in short, I’ve got a gigabit connected local hard drive that is smart enough to back itself automatically. And it also serves as my own personal media center, photo backup solution, and it just so happens to have a suite of iOS apps so I can access all the files and media from any of my computers or devices from anywhere in the world.

It’s wonderful.

On Working From Home and Running a Business

If you work for yourself, you don’t have the luxury of being passive when it comes to things like community, finances, and work/life boundaries. These things are not taken care of for you by someone else. You have to take intentional steps and do your due diligence to make sure you are on the path towards “health” in these areas. Speaking of health, if you work at a desk, sitting and stationary all day, that, too, is just not healthy.

I’ve been working from home for myself for 3.5 years, and this past month I’ve been thinking about all the important aspects related to having a “healthy lifestyle” in the context of being self-employed and working at a computer all day every day.

If you just coast through your days, the natural trajectory will be downward, not upward. There is nobody to tell you when to take a break and when to call it a day. There is nobody to bounce ideas off of or to chat with at the water cooler. And if you work from home and work for yourself, there is no company retirement plan already set up for you, and your taxes are not automatically withheld.

And so, for those of us who work from home (and especially those of us who also work for ourselves) there is an huge need to take proactive measures to ensure the long term health of our body, our finances, relationships, creativity, and more.

Below I want to share with you the things I do to try and keep myself healthy. In 20 years from now I hope to be doing even better creative work than I am today. But that means in the mean time I need to stay physically healthy, creatively energized, all while continuing to run a profitable business. The good news is: it’s totally doable.

Finances

Before I quit my day job to write for this website full-time, I was already making some money on the side. In 2010 (the year before I started writing here as my full-time gig) this site was earning about $1,000/month from ads, sponsorships, and Amazon links. All the money I made from the site was “extra” — we didn’t need it as part of our monthly living expenses, and so it’s what I used to pay for new gadgets and software and to cover hosting costs, etc. I didn’t spend anywhere near the $1,000/month of this semi-disposable income, and so we set aside the extra into a savings account.

In February 2011 I took the leap and began writing here as my full-time job. Thanks to the extreme generosity of this site’s subscribing members, I’ve been able continue writing here for over three years now.

But there’s more to the story than that. When shawnblanc.net became my job, it also meant the income from the site was now paying the mortgage instead of being semi-disposable income. And so the first thing I did was establish a budget for my business.

I cannot express enough just how absolutely critical it has been to have a budget — both for our company and for our personal household expenses.

Did you know that most of America’s millionaires are people who earn low-six-figure incomes? They have a high net worth (between $1 – $10 million) because they live simply and budget their money.

That is the same philosophy I’ve followed with my business (and personal) finances. I don’t have a business credit card; I’ve never taken a business loan. Everything I buy that’s business-related I have cash in the bank for. And as a result, my company has been profitable since day one.

My point here is that those of us who work for ourselves — freelancers, contractors, small-business owners, et al. — must learn to budget and manage our business finances. The long-term health of our business and our household income depends on it. And that also means our long-term ability to do our best creative work depends on it as well.

That said, here’s my practical approach to budgeting and finances:

  • Business Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 3 months of operating costs in case everything goes unexpectedly south one day. This also helps with cash flow. For example: when you have sponsors and advertisers who pay net 30 or 60, you don’t have to live on debt until those invoices come in. In short, the money I’m using today to run my business is money that was earned 3 months ago.

  • Personal Emergency Fund: Enough to cover 6-12 months of household living expenses (food, mortgage, utilities, insurance, etc) in case all the income from my websites were to dry up overnight.

  • Cash envelopes for personal expenses: This is old-school, but it really works. My wife and I have been doing a cash envelope system for several years and it has been so great for our finances. Yes, there are apps which can manage our personal budget for us and can even track “digital envelopes”, but we like the physicality of actually using cash. There is more of a connection to how much you are actually spending. And we have found that we spend far less and actually accomplish far more than when we just had a general fund for all our variable expenses and simply made sure not to overspend.

  • Giving: My business gives 11% of its annual gross income to charity. Giving to others is very important to Anna and I, and over our years of marriage we’ve found that we give away less if we wait until there is an obvious need presented to us. So we are very proactive in making sure we are giving away at least a certain percentage of all our income.

  • Taxes: Get a good CPA who you can talk to any time you have questions or problems with your taxes. It should be someone who you trust. Let them tell you how much to set aside for your taxes, and then do what they say.

  • Investing: After charity and taxes, we take 15% of the company’s net earnings and invest it. Most of this is earmarked for retirement, but some of it I keep for investing in new ideas, etc. For example: I hired a professional designer and developer to help me build The Sweet Setup. I treated that as an investment in a new business, and now that The Sweet Setup is up and running, I am paying my investment back.

All this financial stuff isn’t anything new. In fact, that’s what makes it so sound — it’s old, tried and true advice. Basically, get/stay out of debt, live beneath your means, save for a rainy day, invest for the future, and be generous to those in need.

Recommended books about money

For help getting out of debt, and getting off the ground with budgeting and investing, I highly recommend Total Money Makeover, The Intelligent Investor, If You Can, and Money for Something.

Mental / Spiritual / Emotional Health

This is actually more about staying creative than staying sane. Because, let’s be honest. To be a self-employed creative person, you kinda need a little bit of insanity.

Anyway, I think there are two important things when it comes to keeping our creative juices flowing and our minds sharp. We need problems that are exciting and engaging. And we need to keep learning and experimenting.

Recently I wrote an article about the fight to stay creative. There are things such as isolation, ambiguity, fear, anxiety, shame, doubt, comparison, and disillusionment that can hinder and stifle our creativity. And there are things such as community, clear goals, trust, experience, rest, and diligence that can help stimulate and encourage our creativity.

In short, it basically boils down to having fun and serving others (which looks different for everyone). And that’s why it’s important to recognize if and when you’re feeling angsty, depressed, dried up, and/or burnt out. And if so, talk to someone about it, get help, and give yourself permission to make changes that will bring fun and life back in to your work.

Physical Health

I love working at a desk all day. I’m a computer nerd, I love typing and reading, and this space is my little cockpit of creativity. But they say sitting for hours a day will kill you. Literally.

The default seems to be getting an “Executive Chair” from Office Max for $79, then having a bad sitting posture with hours of not moving. Followed up by spending the evening watching TV from the couch while eating chips and drinking beer. Sounds glorious and affordable. But I know what my mind and body will be like in 15 years from now if that’s the lifestyle routine I fall in to. And it’s just not worth it.

Hopefully, my best creative work is still ahead of me. And so I intend to be physically healthy and alert for the journey. What this looks like for me is four-fold: a standing desk, regular breaks to move around, regular exercise, and a healthy(-ish) diet. I say healthy-ish because I still like ice cream fried foods, but not every day.

When I first started working from home, I set up a standing desk. I stood for 6 months before I went back to sitting. It’s silly, but since I spend a lot of time doing creative writing all day, I never felt in the “creative mood” while standing. But now, three years later, I am seeing the negative effect of all the sitting I do. My metabolism has slowed down and my legs are often sore. So a few weeks ago I once again set up my standing desk. And, to have the best of both worlds, I went with this Jarvis Electronic Moving Desk Legs.

Though standing is better than sitting, you’re still relatively stationary. It’s important to move around regularly. You could get a treadmill to go under your desk, and maybe one day I’ll do that. But what I’ve been using for years is this BreakTime Mac app. When you begin working at your computer it starts timing. And then at an interval you determine (anywhere between 1 – 60 minutes) it will beep and remind you to get up and walk around for 3 minutes.

One of these alone is not enough. You really should consider standing. If you sit for more than a couple hours, get an ergonomic chair that encourages blood circulation and good posture. Move around every 30 – 45 minutes. Exercise. Eat well.

Work / Life Boundaries

One of the primary motivations behind me quitting my day job to work from home was that my wife and I wanted to have kids. And I wanted to be a very active and engaged dad. Having a thriving relationship with my two boys, my wife, and my friends and family is so important to me. And a lot of that just boils down to time. Put the phone away, Shawn. Turn off the computer, shut the office door, and go play trains with your boys.

I don’t think it’s about balance: equal parts work and non-work. But about boundaries. Giving each area the focus and attention it deserves.

What this looks like for me is that I have a daily schedule. The first half of my work day (7:30 am – 11:30 am) is spent working on the most important tasks of the day. This is when I do most of my writing and podcasting. Then I have lunch with my family, and work on less-important admin tasks in the afternoon. I also have a dedicated work space downstairs that is where I go to work.

Also: Thriving Professional Relationships

A life of long-term creativity doesn’t tend to happen in isolation — we need one another for input, advice, encouragement, ideas, and more. Which is why, hands down, one of the most challenging aspects that I have faced in my life of working from home has been the lack of face-to-face community.

Things still are not ideal — I would love to have a small team of comrades and co-workers that I meet for work every day, and hopefully one day things will reach that point — but I have some ways of staying connected and staying in community.

I’m in a few Group Me groups with some fellow nerds and we chat about life and stuff during the day; I talk with several friends over AIM / iMessage during the day; I go to a coworking space (though not as often as I used to); I get out and work from a coffee shop usually at least once or twice per week; I have lunch each week with a few friends; I go to local design/tech/small-business-owner meetups whenever possible; I go to design/tech conferences at least once or twice per year.

Also: Weekend Hobbies

Work with your head? Try resting with your hands. For one, I try to spend Saturday away from my computer. It’s our family day, and so we run errands, go to the park, hang out together, etc. Also, woodworking is my favorite hobby. One of my favorite ways to unwind from all the pixels is to build something with lumber and power tools.

Take Action

The hard part now is to actually do something about this. If you’re like me, it’s pretty easy to look at an area of my life and instantly recognize that it could be better.

What I’ve found is that each of these areas serves as doorway to the others. Meaning, once you tackle one area — say, budgeting, for instance — then that gives you the momentum to tackle another area, such as having and keeping a schedule. So my advice is to pick just one thing you’d like to focus on and spend a month just slowly working on it, giving yourself lots of leeway and grace as you figure things out.

I for one hope to still be doing awesome creative work 20 years from now. There are a lot of approaches and a lot of answers to the above problems. It’s all seems to be such a moving vehicle, and you figure things out as you go. Which is why what’s most important is to simply start and take action.

Gigabit’d

Two years ago, Google started bringing fiber to Kansas City. And it took them until today to make their way to my house.

Google Fiber

In the 2 years between their original announcement and when service became available in my neighborhood, I thought quite a bit about if I was willing to let Google be my Internet Service Provider.

The biggest question I had to ask myself: will Google be using my online activity to sell me ads? The answer is: certainly.

So then I had to ask myself if I was okay with that. And the answer is: yes I am.

Google is already trying to sell me ads. They have been ever since I signed up for the Gmail beta back in 2006 or whenever.

Obviously, now that they’re my ISP, they will be able to garner more information about my house. Basically they now have visibility into anything we do online that’s not an encrypted transaction, such as the movies we stream from Netflix, the products we browse on Amazon, what songs we stream over Rdio, every website we visit, and who knows what else. It sounds creepy when you put it like that, but it’s also no different than any other ISP relationship I’ve had (AOL, Time Warner, Verizon, AT&T). It’s just that none of the others were in to Big Data as much as Google is.

And it’s not dangerous. All our most sensitive information is still safe because it’s transferred over encrypted connections (emails, passwords, iMessages, SSL encrypted sites like my bank, et al.).

All that to say, I am comfortable with Google as my ISP. Because in exchange, I now have internet speeds that are 20 times faster than the fastest I could pay TWC to provide. And it’s for the same price of $70/month.

Google Fiber Speed Test

In many ways, the faster speeds won’t have a huge impact on my day-to-day life. Just because I have 20x faster internet doesn’t mean I will get 20x more work done. My Rdio songs won’t sound any better, my emails won’t send or receive all that noticeably quicker, etc.

But Netflix will stream in higher quality. My daily podcast now uploads in one second (literally). Safari will connect to websites and servers quicker thanks to the fantastic ping rate with Google Fiber, and media-rich sites will load sooner. Big file downloads will be noticeably faster. And who knows what else.

Moreover, it seems worth mentioning that the entire signup and installation process for Google Fiber was incredible. Believe it or not, Google was extremely organized, friendly, clear, and efficient. All of the automated systems they had in place for contacting me when Fiber became available, and for helping me schedule the installation were clear and easy. The technicians who came to my house to run the lines and set up the network box were very friendly. And the one time I had to call customer service to re-schedule an appointment, the lady I spoke to on the phone knew exactly what she was talking about. So far, I’ve been impressed with the whole process and service.

Command Space: A Review of LaunchBar and a History of Application Launchers

For the persnickety power-user, there is but one way to navigate around a computer: with the keyboard.

Let’s talk about application launchers

Want to launch an app on your Mac? There is, ahem, an app for that.

Whenever I do a clean install of my Mac (which is less often these days), the first application I download is LaunchBar.

Because to me, my application launcher is how I get around my computer. Without LaunchBar installed it’s like I’m at a friend’s house, trying to navigate to the kitchen in the middle of the night and I can’t find the light switches and I keep stubbing my toes on the furniture.

On average, I bring up LaunchBar about 40 times per day when I’m working at my computer. I spend about 6 of my working hours at my Mac, which equates to using LaunchBar about once every 10 minutes.

I’ve been using a Mac for 10 years. My first application launcher was Quicksilver, but when it farted out on Snow Leopard in 2009 I switched to LaunchBar. In 2011 I spent several months using Alfred, and I’ve switched over to it on occasion since then as well to stay abreast of its development.

There are plenty of other apps I spend more time in, but none I use more frequently than my application launcher.

If ever there was an app that needed to be as frictionless as possible, it would be the application launcher. It should come up instantly when prompted, it should respond instantly, and I should never feel lost or confused when using it. The whole point is fast launching and fast actions.

Some use cases for an application launcher include launching apps, launching bookmarks, launching AppleScripts, performing custom searches on various sites, doing quick mathematical calculations, opening files, getting at the recently-opened files within a certain app, accessing the clipboard history, performing actions on files (like grabbing a document and attaching it to an email, or resizing an image), and more.

Bottom line, what makes an application launcher such a critical tool is that it’s the fastest way launch and act on common apps, documents, bookmarks, and more.

But it doesn’t end there. LaunchBar and Alfred actually become more personalized as you use them. They literally learn your behavior by weighting certain search results and findings based on your usage over time, and they can be customized to only index the things you’re interested in accessing so that they act as fast as possible.

With Yosemite, Apple has promoted Spotlight to a more front-and-center position, and they are giving it a bit more “power”. So where did this idea of an application launcher come from? I’m glad you asked…

Other application launchers

Though LaunchBar is the original (not including the NeXTSTEP Dock), it’s not the only application launcher available on the Mac today.

For the sake of this article, an application launcher will be defined as any tool on your computer which provides a shortcut to finding and activating files and programs.

The Dock, for example, is the premier application launcher and it ships with OS X. Spotlight is also an application launcher. And there is Launchpad, but does anybody use it?

There are two functions that I consider to be the most important with an application launcher: (a) quickly finding and launching applications, files, and more; and (b) instantly activating an application or script with the use of a pre-defined global hotkey.

Alas, LaunchBar, which is this author’s application launcher of choice, does not have global keyboard shortcuts built in. Alfred and Quicksilver do. And so, in order to instantly activate an application I use a second application, Keyboard Maestro. For example: Mail is Shift+Command+M; Tweetbot is Alt+Command+T; nvALT is Alt+Command+N.

Though the Dock is convenient and ever-present, there are some shortcomings that a dedicated application launcher such as LaunchBar solves. And, in fact, it was this type of shortcoming that actually lead to the development of LaunchBar — the original 3rd-party application launcher.

An aside about Alfred

I think it’s fair to say that the king of the Application Launcher Market is Alfred. I conducted a detailed survey back in 2011 and another more casual one a few months ago, and the majority response to those surveys was that people use Alfred as their application launcher of choice.

Moreover, Alfred is what I recommend over at The Sweet Setup as one of the applications all moderately computer savvy folks should use on their Mac.

Alfred is, without question, a fantastic app. It is actively maintained, well designed, easy to use, and extremely powerful. The reason I pick it for people new to application launchers is that it’s easy to ease in to (when you type into the field, you can take as long as you like), it’s free for the basic feature set, and then you can grow into it if you want to buy the power pack.

But I personally prefer LaunchBar for a few reasons…

LaunchBar

My reasons for using LaunchBar are two fold. For one, I like the way LaunchBar handles Instant Send, browsing recent documents in apps, and its clipboard manager. Secondly, I like that LaunchBar is the original application launcher. It has a long and rich history of development on the Mac that spans literally 20 years. And I’m the sort of fellow who appreciates things like that.

So, all this to say, my review of and praise for LaunchBar is not a simultaneous knock against Alfred. I hope that, regardless of your Application Launcher of Choice, you can enjoy this article for what it is: a story about one of the finest and oldest Mac applications still in active development.

The “Command+Space” Origin Story

The original application launcher was, in fact, LaunchBar. It started back in 1995 and ran on NeXTSTEP.

About 11 years ago, Norbert Heger, the original developer of LaunchBar, shared about the history of this fine app in an interview with Derrick Story.

In the interview, Norbert shares about how when your files are organized with hierarchical structure it is more difficult to get to them quickly. And the sort of person who cares about organized hierarchal structure with their files, folders, is likely to be the sort of person who also cares about being able to get to all of those files and folders and applications quickly because they spend a lot of time making the most out of their computer.

And so, in 1995, LaunchBar began. At first it was a collection of shell scripts and a Terminal window. But as the internal team over at Objective Development used it more and more, they realized that it was a tool the general public would probably benefit from. So in 1996 they released a public beta.

Norbert Heger:

The very first “prototype” was not even an application. It all began with dozens of little shell scripts and a tiny Terminal window. Each of the scripts had a very short one- or two-letter name and just opened one specific application or document. The Terminal window was placed in one of the screen corners, allowing us to bring it to the front quickly using the mouse. When we wanted to launch Interface Builder, for instance, we just had to click that screen corner, enter “IB” (the name of the script we’ve prepared to launch Interface Builder) and hit Return.

From there they developed a rating algorithm and automatic indexing so that you wouldn’t have to write new shell scripts for every app, file, or folder you wanted to launch.

They also came up with the keyboard shortcut that we still use today:

Johannes Tiefenbrunner “invented” the Command-Space hotkey back in 1995. In NEXTSTEP it was nearly impossible to implement a system wide hotkey, but Johannes found a way to patch the Display Postscript Server (also responsible for dispatching keyboard and mouse events), allowing us to activate LaunchBar with a single keystroke. Fortunately, these things became much easier to accomplish in Mac OS X.

LaunchBar 1, running on NeXTSTEP — Circa 1995

LaunchBar version 1

LaunchBar 2, running on Rhapsody

LaunchBar version 2

In 2001, Objective Development ported LaunchBar to OS X. They gave it a mostly “default looking” design, which stayed pretty consisted for the next 12 years.

LaunchBar versions 3 – 5 all looked just about like this:

LaunchBar 4

But today, the design is changing.

LaunchBar 6:

LaunchBar version 6

What’s New in LaunchBar 6?

Quite a bit, in fact. In short, LaunchBar looks better, has access to more items on your Mac (like iCloud tabs!), and you can now write and install custom workflows.

LaunchBar 6 is the first paid update to LaunchBar since 2010. If you’re a longtime LaunchBar user, the $19 upgrade price is well worth it. There’s also now a free version of LaunchBar, that gives you access to all the features, but has a limit on how frequently you can launch it.

The all-new look.

LaunchBar 6 Themes

Bigger font. Central location on the screen. It’s reminiscent of Alfred a bit (and even the new Spotlight coming in Yosemite), but yet it’s still very LaunchBar-y.

I like the new look quite a bit. Still has some of the things I like about LaunchBar, but with some cool things from Alfred brought over.

And there are themes: Bright, Dark, Default, Frosty, and Small. The “Small” theme is the previous LaunchBar design seen in version 5. I personally like the “Frosty” theme — it has an iOS 7- (and now Yosemite-)esque transparency to it. You can also customize your own theme if you want, though it’s a hack.

Actions, Extensions, and Workflows

LaunchBar has always come with some clever actions built in. For example, you can create a TinyURL link, send a tweet, eject any and all ejectable volumes that are mounted to your Mac, have Mail refresh in the background, upload images to Flickr, and more.

Many of these actions and workflows are things which OS X already handles, and LaunchBar just makes it easier to get to. And they aren’t necessarily all actions that do something, but also can serve as quick access to various things.

For example, there is an action that lets you browse the list of all currently open Safari tabs. So, say you want to email or tweet a link to one of the 41 tabs that you know you have open. You don’t have to navigate to Safari and peruse through all the tabs to find the one — you can use LaunchBar to scroll through your list of currently open Safari tabs, find the one you want and then act on that URL (which means you could convert it to a short URL, you could use it as the body text for composing a new email, you could tweet it out, you could simply copy it to the clipboard, etc.).

LaunchBar 6 is more flexible when it comes to the ability for users to create their own workflows and custom actions. Not only can you create Automator Workflows that interact with LaunchBar (receiving input, sending back results, etc.), but you can also write your own custom actions.

There is a documentation page on the Objective Development website which gives more details about how to write LaunchBar Actions.

I’ve been using the new LaunchBar for 10 weeks now, and I’ve yet to create a single custom action of my own that I didn’t already have in my previous versions of the app (such as a my custom Pinboard and Amazon searches). For one, I’m not a very good scripting programmer so I don’t even really know where to start. And perhaps I’m just not imaginative enough to think up ways my computing time would benefit from a custom action.

Because from where I’m sitting, all the built-in actions are pretty great already.

On Twitter, I asked any Alfred users to share what their must-have custom workflows were. Many answers were for things that LaunchBar already does out of the box: toggling Bluetooth, sending a tweet, doing a custom search on a website, adding a new task to Reminders, creating a new calendar event, and more.

One big difference between LaunchBar’s custom actions and Alfred’s is that with the latter you can assign a global hotkey to execute the action. But I use Keyboard Maestro to run all the custom scripts and macros that I want to be hotkey executable (such as this one which will take the current Safari tab and open it in Chrome).

Usage Reports

LaunchBar now keeps track of how often you open the Bar, what actions you perform, and how much time you’re saving. You can view your usage report by bringing up LaunchBar and hitting Opt+Cmd+U (or click the gear and click on Usage).

Live Search Results

You know how in Google when you’re typing in a search, the suggestions auto populate? That now happens in LaunchBar as well. It works with Google, Wikipedia, and a few others. Plus you can create your own custom live searches via LaunchBar Actions.

Emoji

LaunchBar 6 Emoji

Your emails, iMessages, and whatever else just got ten times more fancy with quick access to Emoji from within LaunchBar. Just type in “Emoji” and drill down. (Hi, Casey!)

Better iCloud Calendar and Reminders Integration

You can create iCloud reminders and calendar events from within the app.

If you use reminders often, you can set up a shortcut to the specific iCloud Reminders list that you use most often to bring that one up right away. And because you can send text and things into LaunchBar, you could easily create reminders from selected text or URLs, etc.

You can also toggle which reminder lists and which calendars are indexable if you have some misc lists that you don’t use.

Unfortunately, using natural language for assigning dates and times to a reminder (such as: “take out the trash tomorrow at 2pm”) doesn’t translate to applying that specified time to the reminder (a limitation of Reminders, not LaunchBar). However, you can assign dates and times using the @ symbol and direct time stamps (with the date going before the time).

LaunchBar Reminders integration

As you can see in the above screenshot, how the reminder (or meeting) info is parsed is displayed within LaunchBar’s columns. The text of the reminder is “call mom” the calendar date is this coming Friday, June 13, and the time for the reminder is 5:30pm.

Using LaunchBar to create reminders isn’t bad, but Fantastical’s support for Reminders is a bit better because Fantastical has a superior natural language parser.

In addition to creating reminders, you can also view all the reminders in your list and even mark them as completed from within LaunchBar.

LaunchBar Completed Reminders

In short, LaunchBar now operates as a full-fledged iCloud Reminders client. Not bad if you prefer to use Apple’s Reminders app, but wish there was a better form of quick entry from the Mac.

Aside: thoughts on Application Launchers and their relationship with other apps and services

So long as we’re talking about how you can use LaunchBar to create calendar events and reminders, it brings up a question of just how integrated we want our application launcher to be with our other apps?

For example, LaunchBar has a “Send to OmniFocus Inbox” action that will take whatever bit of text, file, URL, or the like that you’ve sent in to LaunchBar and then create a new task in OmniFocus with that item. It’s quite clever and helpful, but it’s also the same functionality as the OmniFocus’s built-in Clipper.

You can also add Fantastical events with LaunchBar, control iTunes, refresh Mail, and more. The list goes on for how LaunchBar (and Alfred) integrate with other apps.

But there are many times where I prefer to use the native integration of my apps. There are pros and cons to both sides of the argument, of course. Take Fantastical for example: if you use LaunchBar to send an event to Fantastical then the advantage is that you only need to remember your LaunchBar shortcut key. Evoke the app, get Fantastical selected, hit space and type your calendar entry, then launch that text in to Fantastical and finalize the new event. But, I prefer the way Fantastical works when entering a new event. And so that means I have to remember my keyboard shortcut for launching Fantastical.

The advantage of using an application launcher as your central repository for anything and everything is that there is less to remember. However, the integration with the various apps and services is not always as polished compared to the native input methods built in to those apps themselves.

LaunchBar Tips

With an app that can do so much, sometimes it’s tough to know where to start. Here are a few tips for things I do.

  • Quick Send: If you hold Command+Space while there’s an item that is selected in the Finder or text that is selected in an app, then that item will be “sent” to LaunchBar and you can then act on it.

    For example, if I need to crop and resize an image in Photoshop, I’ll navigate to that image in the Finder, then hold Command+Space to bring up LaunchBar with the item selected.

    LaunchBar Instant Send

    Do you see the orange block arrow icon? That means LaunchBar is ready to act on that item, and whatever I type next is the action LaunchBar will take on the selected item. Typing “photoshop” will then give me the option to open that image in Photoshop. I hit Enter and off we go.

    I could type “flickr” instead and then be given the option to upload the image to Flickr, via OS X’s system level service.

  • Getting a contact’s address / email / phone number: When you’ve brought up LaunchBar, search for a contact’s name. Then, hit the right arrow key and you have access to their address card fields. From their you can select their phone number or email for copy and pasting into whatever application you’re working in. Great for when someone emails you asking for the contact info of a mutual friend, or a business contact. Or heck, if someone is on the other side of the room and asks for a phone number, you can display it in large type on your 27-inch monitor because why not?

  • Navigating and acting on recent documents in apps: No only can you use LaunchBar to launch any app on your computer, but LaunchBar also has visibility into the documents that you’ve recently had open in that app.

    So, say you want to open that spreadsheet again. Bring up LaunchBar and get Numbers selected. Then, tap the right arrow and you can drill down to see all the recent documents. And from there you have far more options than just to open them — you can tag them with a color, attach them to a new email message, preview them in QuickLook, and more.

  • Clipboard history: It boggles my mind that OS X doesn’t have some sort of clipboard history by default. Once you’ve used an app that manages and tracks your clipboard history you’ll wonder how you ever got by without it. The fact that now, Copy/Cut is not a potentially destructive action.

    To access your clipboard history in LaunchBar go to the Preferences → Clipboard. Make sure that “Show clipboard history” is selected, and set a hotkey for it. I use Opt+Cmd+\.

  • Creating custom abbreviations: If old habits die hard, you can create your own custom abbreviations, such as “ical” for the Calendar app. To do this just get the app, bookmark, file, whatever that you want as the selection in LaunchBar. Then click on the item (you’ll see the “open” menu when your mouse hovers over), down towards the bottom of the popup menu you’ll see an option to Assign abbreviation.

  • Creating custom searches: you can set up custom searches on Amazon, Pinboard, Giphy, your own website, etc. All you need to know is how the search term interacts with the website in the URL.

    Here’s how: Bring up LaunchBar and click the Gear icon in the right side of the Bar. Go to Index → Show Index. Then go to Web → Search Templates. Create a new one for the website you want, and simply put an asterisk to serve as LaunchBar’s wild card to know where you want the search result to show up.

    For example, this will launch a search on Amazon:

    http://www.amazon.com/s/&field-keywords=*

    This will launch a search on Giphy:

    http://giphy.com/search/*

    To use your custom search, just bring up LaunchBar and type the initials for the search you want. When you have it selected, hit space and a text box will show up. Then type your search into the field and hit enter. LaunchBar will send you to that URL. Magic.

    LaunchBar also has a ton of pre-built search templates, such as for the iTunes store, Mac App store, Google, Dictionary, Wikipedia, and more.

Additional resources

The Take Control of LaunchBar book has a ton of information, though it’s not yet updated for LaunchBar 6.

And Macworld has several articles with tips and tricks: here, here, and here.

Longstanding Mac Apps

My grandpa was a teacher by trade and a woodworker by passion. My grandmother never did get to park their car in the garage because it was my grandpa’s wood shop.

In my garage are a few tools handed down to me from my Grandpa. Here’s a photo of a few of the more sentimental items I’ve been given: a level and a hand plane.

Tools

The level is least 50 or 60 years old — it has my great grandfather’s initials carved on it. And the plane is probably as old as I am.

I am also a woodworker by passion, but not nearly to the extent my grandpa was. I enjoy building tables and benches on the weekends as a way to give my mind and hands a change of pace from the pixel-based work I do the rest of the week.

The tools of my trade are digital.

A lot has changed in the personal computing industry since 1985. For me, the first computer I ever called my own was a Dell laptop back in 2000. Aside from my Yahoo ID and my AOL AIM account,1 I am not using any of the apps or services that I began using back in 2000.

Sometimes I wonder if the software I’m using today will still be around 20 or 30 years from now. If I put a reminder into OmniFocus to renew my passport in 2024, will that to-do item be preserved until the time it’s due?

For equal parts fun and research, I was digging around to see what Mac apps have been around for the past couple of decades and which are still relevant and under active development.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far:

  • Microsoft Word: 1985 (It’s fun to think that the most popular longstanding 3rd-party Mac app might be Microsoft Word, hu?)

  • Microsoft Excel: 1985 (Fun fact: did you know that Excel first shipped on the Mac? It didn’t come to Windows until 1987.)

  • Adobe Illustrator: 1986

  • Fetch: 1989

  • Adobe Photoshop: 1990

  • Accordance Bible: 1990

  • Pro Tools: 1991 (Fun fact: did you know when Pro Tools first launched it cost $6,000, and that “Livin la Vida Loca” was the first number 1 single to be recorded, edited, and mixed entirely in Pro Tools?)

  • BBEdit: 1992 (Fun fact: did you know BBEdit was free when it first came out?)

  • LaunchBar: 1995 (Fun fact: did you know LaunchBar is the original application launcher, and the first app to ever use the Command+Space keyboard hotkey?)

  • Transmit: 1998 (Fun fact: did you know Transmit originally was named “Transit” but there was another app by that name, so Panic changed the name of their app.)

I’m sure there are more. Though I’m not trying to make this list exhaustive, if you know of any apps that should be on this list let me know on Twitter. I’m @shawnblanc.


  1. Which I need for Flickr and AIM respectively. Though iMessage has largely usurped AIM over the past year or so.

Awesome

This is a great year to be an Apple software nerd.

For one, there have been, and are coming, some awesome updates to many great 3rd-party apps, such as Reeder 2, OmniFocus 2, LaunchBar 6, and Things 3 to name a few.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

What Apple announced yesterday is nothing short of an epic leap forward for Mac and iOS software. And it’s manifested in the new visual identity of OS X, Continuity between Macs and iOS devices, extensibility within iOS, iCloud Drive and Photo storage, and a hundred other improvements to Mail, Safari, Spotlight, Messages, and more… these things are the foundation of iOS and OS X for the next 5 years.

Moreover, Apple released a brand new programming language, Swift, that will make writing native Mac and iOS apps even easier. When I asked yesterday on Twitter what everyone’s favorite thing announced at WWDC was, the overwhelming response was Swift.

Now, I love to geek out over new hardware much as anybody. But without an operating system and without apps, an iPhone is just a beautiful piece of glass and aluminum — a shell. It’s the software that gives our gadgets their life and personality.

* * *

Yesterday’s keynote was just fantastic. If you haven’t watched it yet, you must. Download the HD version, make some popcorn, and enjoy. This was Apple at its best. The show was fast-paced, enjoyable, and downright funny. And Craig Federighi? The dude was on fire.

All day yesterday, the prevailing question amongst the friends and people I was hanging out with was: “So, what did you think of the keynote?”

Everyone’s answer was pretty much the same: Excitement.

For those of us who use our Macs and iOS devices day in and day out for both work and for play, we have a lot to look forward to. The new features and designs announced yesterday promise to make our digital tools and workflows more fun, more efficient, and, more delightful.

Here are my thoughts and observations (so far) about just a few of the things announced at yesterday’s WWDC 2014 keynote.

OS X Yosemite

Yosemite strikes me as an update to OS X that’s done, in part, at least, as a labor of love. An update to the Mac OS that’s shipping not because Apple has to, but because they want to. It’s not an update to keep up with the times and to have some features checked off the checklist. But rather an update that’s driven by a company that sweats the details and takes great delight in shipping beautiful, delightful software.

The Design

The design is, of course, the most significant change to OS X. We all saw the writing on the wall last year when Apple introduced iOS 7, and now it’s here: OS X is going “flat”.

If you want to get a taste of how the new UI will look on your Mac, here’s a couple of high-res images from Apple’s site. Just save these to your Mac, open one in Preview, and then go Full Screen: The Calendar; Multiple Windows Open; Safari Tabs View; Spotlight.

Aside from the change of window chrome, you can also see there are all sorts of new design changes throughout the entire operating system. Such as new glyphs, new Finder folder icons, a new system font (Helvetica Neue), new system icons, a return to the 2D dock (yay!), and a “consolidating” of the in app title bar so app buttons now sit on the same top row as the stoplight.

The other big system changes include the implementation of a Today view in Notification Center with customizable widgets, and the massive overhaul of Spotlight.

I haven’t yet installed the developer beta onto a USB drive, so I don’t know what Yosemite is like in actual use. But my initial reaction is a good one. Not only am I excited about all the new features and functionality, but the new design looks mostly great to me. I am genuinely looking forward to using this new UI for all the work and play I do from my Mac.

Spotlight

App launchers such as Alfred and LaunchBar are just so great. Like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been using an application launcher for nearly as long as I’ve been using my Mac. I used Quicksilver for years and when it stopped working on Snow Leopard, I switched to LaunchBar.

I don’t think the new Spotlight is going to sherlock Alfred or LaunchBar. There is so much you can do with Alfred or LaunchBar that you can’t do with the new Spotlight, such as access to clipboard history, building custom workflows, assigning global hotkeys, and more. For many people, myself included, a more powerful application launcher will still be their preference.

But for many others, this new, more powerful version of Spotlight will be their first step into the awesome world of intelligent and awesome application launchers. And that’s great.

Also, the new Spotlight shows Apple’s step towards capturing more of the search market. Meaning, when you are looking for something, Apple wants you to start with Spotlight no matter what you’re looking for.

It used to be that Spotlight only searched the indexed contents of your computer’s hard drive. And if you wanted to search for a movie or app you’d open up iTunes. If you wanted to search for information, you’d open up Safari and go to Google. If you wanted to search for a location, you’d open up Maps. But now, all those sources (and more?) have a single starting point: Spotlight.

iCloud Storage

  1. For one, it’s cheaper. The free tier is still at 5GB, but you can get 20GB for $12 / year and 200GB for $48 / year. While I would have loved to see the free tier bumped up to something more substantial, the pricing for the paid tiers is incredibly competitive. I currently pay $40 / year for the 25GB tier. a few more bucks and I can get 8x the storage.

  2. Secondly, it looks like Apple’s answer to Dropbox. Which means the new iCloud Storage and Finder integration could be massive. But it’s too early to tell. iCloud, Mobile Me, and .Mac all have a reputation for not being the most reliable services. If, however, iCloud Finder storage could prove itself to be as useful and reliable as Dropbox, I’d go all-in with it in a heartbeat. Time will tell on this one.

iOS 8

On the iOS 8 website, Apple has outlined many of the hallmark features of the new OS. Here are a few thoughts and observations of my own, regarding some of the things that stand out to me the most and are the most exciting to me.

Messages App

At a keynote like Apple’s, there are three types of reactions to the individual product and feature demos:

  1. Feeling impartial and/or ambivalent to what’s being announced.
  2. Feeling impressed about how cool such-and-such product is.
  3. Feeling legitimately excited because you immediately can see yourself using the new product and it making your life better / easier / etc.

Watching Craig Federighi demo the new features of the iOS Messages, I was not only impressed about how cool it was, but I could instantly see myself using it in real life every day. I communicate with my close friends and family every day almost exclusively through the Messages app. The improvements to group threads, the audio message sharing, and more are all awesome additions that I can’t wait for all my iPhone using friends and family to have access to.

I love that Apple put so much work and improvements into an app that we all use more than any other on our phones. I keep the Messages app in my Dock, but the phone app is literally on another Home screen.

Additional thoughts / notes about Messages:

  • The voice chatting stuff could be a huge win for CarPlay and even just for “messaging” while driving. While using Siri in the car is a pretty good alternative to texting (which is flat out something you should never be doing, period), it’s still awkward and not always accurate. The way the voice messaging works (with auto play and respond available right from the Lock screen) could be significantly safer and easier to use.
  • I love that the videos and photos and audio self-destruct after time to save room on the phone.
  • Looks like the audio files are in the AMR codec.

QuickType + Actionable Notifications

From time to time I have used Android phones and tablets. There are many things about Android that I like, and by far and away the two things I most wish for on iOS are Android’s predictive text keyboard and a better Notification Center. Well, with iOS 8 we’re getting both of those.

  • QuickType: If you haven’t used predictive text typing, it looks like it’d be awkward and slow. But in my experience using it, it’s actually much faster and easier. I am very much looking forward to the new keyboard options and features.

    Moreover, I’m interested to see how the “artificial intelligence” will pan out in day-to-day use. There are some instances where QuickType doesn’t just suggest the word it thinks you’re trying to type, it will literally suggest a word or phrase before you’ve even tapped the first keystroke.

  • And the actionable notifications will be great for saving time. No longer will we have to act like animals, unlocking our phones and launching the messages app to reply to a single text message.

Family Sharing

In some respects, the new Family Sharing features are just a bundled up version of what’s alway been available. But it’s easier to set up and there are some new features.

The feature that I’m most excited about is the automatic shared photo stream album. This was something I loved about using Everpix (before it bit the dust) — I put my phone and my wife’s phone onto the same account and we automatically had shared access to all the photos we each were taking. It was great! Well, now that’s set up in iOS 8:

Family Sharing makes collecting and sharing family memories easier and more fun. It automatically sets up a family photo stream where you can share photos, videos, and comments. And everything stays up to date on everyone’s devices. So you’re all a tap away from the latest vacation shots, birthday highlights, and family pranks.

Extensions

This is huge. But that’s all I know to say about it.

I don’t currently have any long-winded thoughts and opinions about the nitty-gritty implications of precisely how Extensions will change the way we use iOS, and I think that’s the point. We don’t know what sort of awesomeness and convenience and functionality this new inter-app communication will make available. But I know it’s huge because I think Extensions are the foundation for the next 5 years of iOS growth and maturity. Apple themselves can only expand and mature the OS so much; and eventually it will require the contributions and ideas of 3rd-party developers to take it to the next level. Extensions finally opens the door for that.

It will no doubt take a year or two for extensions to become prevalent and mainstream. And then in another year or two years we’ll wonder how we ever lived without them.

Continuity

Continuity looks awesome. It’s a way for the user to start a task on one device and move to another device and pick up right where they left off.

In some ways, “Continuity” already exists. In that, many of our documents and media usage are already in sync between our devices. For example: iCloud Mail drafts are synced; iCloud syncs Safari tabs; Pages documents stored in iCloud are available on any device with Pages; Rdio lets you take over the currently-playing song from one device to another; Pocket Casts syncs play location for your podcast episodes; you can send a location or directions from Maps on the Mac to your iOS device; and more.

However, with Continuity, the point is to make it easier to pick up right where you left off in the very moment you are doing the work. Such as when you want to switch from reading a website on your Mac to your iPad right this moment. In that scenario, there is no more need to unlock your iPad, open Safari, wait a minute or two for iCloud to sync, navigate to your list of iCloud tabs that are open on your Mac, and then open the webpage on your iPad. However, with Continuity you just swipe up on the bottom-left icon and boom.

So in some respects, Continuity is not necessarily a new feature. Rather, it just removes a layer of work. Getting to your same iCloud tab is one swipe away instead of many swipes and taps.

But I think Continuity is more than just a better implementation of a cool feature. I see it as a “philosophical” feature as well — it’s a statement that we use our devices for many of the same tasks, and that “work” is device agnostic. Continuity is a way of telling the Apple user it’s okay to expect their devices to always be in sync down to the very mid-sentence of an email in progress.

In Closing

Everything from yesterday’s event comes together to give us a glimpse into the current Apple culture:

  • There was the overall confident and playful sentiment we saw from Tim Cook, Craig Federighi, and the other presenters.
  • There is the gorgeous, ground-up redesign of OS X.
  • There is the plethora of amazing new features in the apps we use every day.
  • And there is Swift, the new programming language that practically has Mac and iOS developers dancing in the streets.

A cynical onlooker would see these things and say it’s what Apple has to do lest it be doomed. They would say the fun and joyful announcements on stage were an act, and the new features are just a desperate attempt to cover the fact Apple hasn’t yet shipped any brand-new revolutionary hardware gadgets in 2014.

However, the optimistic onlooker would see the Keynote for what it actually is: a glimpse into the culture of Apple in 2014. And that culture is one of excitement, ambition, generosity, confidence, and momentum. We are seeing what the post Steve Jobs Apple is like, and my friends, it is awesome.

A Review of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Here is a dorky chart showing what I call The “Spectrum of ‘GTD workflow’ Tools”:

The Spectrum of GTD Workflow Tools

Click for full-size

What does it mean?

Basic task-management tools shine with short term tasks and goals. They are simple and have no learning curve. However, they can strain under the weight of too many tasks, long-term projects, tasks which are not yet relevant until several months from now, or tasks which need additional layers of information beyond the action item itself.

It’s because of these “shortcomings” of basic tools that more complex tools exist. The complex options excel at managing detailed and long-term projects, tasks with due dates in the far future, and action items with multiple bits of additional information.

However, the complex tools have a trade-off as well. They take time to learn, they beg us to input as much information as possible for every action item thus requiring an extra step or two (or five) when creating a new task, and it can sometimes feel like we’re spending more time managing our task system then actually doing our tasks.

And that’s why in-between the basic and complex tools are those that support a basic structure of projects and lists (and perhaps even due dates with reminders), but which don’t allow or require additional layers of information.

Somewhere along this spectrum is a tool and system that works for you.

Using too basic of a workflow tool when your circumstances require a complex one will cause unnecessary mental friction and will lead to wasted time and forgotten tasks. But using a too-complex tool when your circumstances don’t require it can lead to unnecessary management of and tinkering with your workflow and tools.

There is no single right or wrong solution here. Some of us use a certain tool for task management because our circumstances require it, and some of us a certain tool because our personality prefers it. There are also those who use a non-ideal tool because they don’t know a better option exists (or because they are too stubborn/lazy to seek out and learn the proper tool).

If you can: find a tool that makes sense to you.

Your tools should always be available to you when you want to use them for adding or completing tasks; it should be as easy and fun to use as possible for a tool like this; and it should support a system that you trust with your tasks and projects, that way you’ll be predisposed to continue using it without weighing the other options every other week.

Factors that I think are important but which should not be the ultimate deciding factors include the cost, the learning curve, and the trendiness. No doubt, for many of you reading this, the system you use to get things done is the backbone of your day-to-day work. Choosing the inexpensive shortcut may save as much as $200 and a few weeks of learning the ropes, but it may also mean taking on a long-term handicap related to your productivity. I’m not saying to go buy the most expensive software out there, but I am asking that you consider your needs and give yourself permission to invest in the best tools available that will aid you in the activities you do every single day.

My tool of choice is OmniFocus

I’ve read David Allen’s book, and I totally get it. I love it. His whole philosophy for getting things done, staying organized, and getting our task management systems out of our heads and into some other system all makes a lot of sense to me. The parking lot, the reviews, it clicks with how my brain works.

And so, yes, my own system of productivity is theoretically similar to what Allen lays out in his book. Except that my practice of “GTD” seems so very sloppy.

For the past 4 years I’ve used OmniFocus as my task-management system. Like a good wallet, OmniFocus has held together the crazy and necessary bits of my life through all sorts of seasons. From my time as a creative director managing a team of 17, to my transition as a self-employed full-time blogger, through dozens of business trips and vacations, through two kids, innumerable projects around the house, and so, so, so much more.

I’ve got a lot of crap in OmniFocus, to be honest. Like I said, my GTD system is sloppy — I don’t keep my task-management software neat and tidy because I don’t care that much. I don’t have perfectly formatted lists with thought-through start and due dates, proper contexts, accurate time estimations, or anything else. And yes, I’ll admit that I don’t always start my tasks with a verb (call, ask, go to, pick up, fall over, etc.). Also, I’m very bad at regularly reviewing all my active projects.

If I did all these things well, OmniFocus would be an ideal tool. It is SO GREAT at managing all the crazy metadata that goes along with a finely-tuned productivity workflow.

But in my years of using this app, I’ve found that it’s also great at managing my more sloppy and unorganized style of “productivity workflow.”

OmniFocus is awesome at letting me be messy and disorganized with my tasks. Because the truth is, I’d rather just be doing stuff — like writing, reading, or (ideally) sitting outside in my hammock drinking some lemonade — instead of going through all my active projects and dusting my someday-maybe list.

I’m not an OmniFocus ninja, and I don’t spend a lot of time fiddling and tweaking my software. But I have been using OmniFocus long enough to know what it’s capable of, how to use it best for my needs, to know that I still have room for improvement with how I use it, but still trust that it can handle whatever I can throw at it.

I know OmniFocus can conform to my needs, I trust it with my tasks, and based on how I use the app and how I manage my tasks and projects, I know that when something important is due, OmniFocus will let me know. Once I’ve put something into the app, I let it go. And that is worth the price of this software times ten.

How I use each version of OmniFocus

OmniFocus is a 3-app suite: iPhone, iPad, and Mac. I use all three apps daily. Here’s how:

iPhone

I predominately use the iPhone for two things: (1) quick capture of a new task, and (2) checking items off a list when out and about (such as errands, shopping, etc.)

The iPhone version of OmniFocus is my least favorite of the three apps. And, unfortunately, it’s my least favorite because it handles one of its most important functions very poorly: quick entry.

So say I’m standing in line at Chipotle and I suddenly think of an excellent topic I want to add to my upcoming book, and I want to work on it tomorrow morning during my writing time.

Here’s the steps necessary: (1) unlock iPhone; (2) launch OmniFocus; (3) tap the Quick Entry button on the bottom right; (4) enter task name: “Add cool new section to the book”; (5) tap the Project picker; (6) type in the first few letters of the name of the project; (7) tap the name of the project; (8) tap the Due date picker; (9) tap the “+1 Day” button to set the task to be due tomorrow; (10) tap “Save”.

If you don’t include the time it takes to pull my iPhone out of my pocket and unlock it, then the time it takes to enter in this “quick” entry takes about 30 seconds. Not an incredibly long time, but it’s not an easy 30 seconds.

I could just toss the task into my OmniFocus inbox and save myself half of those steps, but why would I do that when I already know the project and due date for this task? Ignoring that data is simply putting it off to a later time.

In a nut, my quibble with the iPhone is that the new task entry page does not have a clearly defined hierarchy. Thus, even after 9 months of using it every day, I’m still not familiar with the new task entry layout.

iPad

I use the iPad mostly for doing my reviews and scrubbing my daily list of things to do. The iPad version of OmniFocus was my favorite, but it’s now tied with the Mac because the new Mac version is so great.

Every morning, I scrub my to-do list by looking at what’s due today and what’s available to be done in the projects I’m excited about working on today. I start by writing down my “Big Three” tasks I want to get done (these are sometimes important tasks that are due, but they’re often part of the projects I have motivation to keep working on). These “Big Three” are how I’ll define success for my work day, and it’s what gives me the primary direction for what to work on once I sit down at my keyboard.

I also have a bit of admin and email time as part of my day, and so I use OmniFocus to tell me what specifics I’ll be working on during the day.

I then move that day’s tasks to paper and map out a rough timeline for when I plan to tackle the big tasks and when I plan to wrap up my day.

The Morning To-Do List Scrub

Mac

Since I work from my Mac for hours a day, I use OmniFocus here quite a bit. It’s almost always running because I send a lot of tasks into OmniFocus using the Quick Entry popup, and during my times in the day when I work through some of my “Admin” context tasks, I reference OmniFocus for what needs to be done.

And with that, let’s talk about the new version of OmniFocus for Mac.

New and Improved: OmniFocus 2 for Mac

It’s brand new, and here’s what’s most awesome:

  1. Gorgeous new design — finally.
  2. Forecast view — straight out of the iPad app.
  3. Much improved Review mode — also from the iPad.
  4. Quick Open — a way to jump to a specific perspective, project, context, or folder without leaving your keyboard.

There’s more, of course, but these are the new elements of OmniFocus 2 for Mac that I personally am most excited about.

The Design of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Form follows function. Design isn’t just how it looks, design is also how it works. Etcetera. Well, OmniFocus 1 had the function — it worked great — but form? Not so much.

Fortunately, you could tweak the colors, typefaces, and spacing of the original OmniFocus. Myself, and others, had our own neat themes to improve slightly on the default design of the app. I felt my theme helped give some much-needed space to the app, but it never felt great.

Which is why there’s no contest about what the biggest update to the new version of OmniFocus is: the design.

For me, the complete visual overhaul of the app is reminiscent of getting my first Nintendo for Christmas — I wanted it so badly for so long and I cannot believe it actually happened. Yes!

A Visual History of OmniFocus

I’ve written about OF’s visual history before and I’d like to do so again. Not only do I think it’s interesting and fascinating, I think taking a look at how far the app has come gives some context and appreciation for the current state of the app as well as it being a brief study in user interface design.

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was also a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that ran on a single OmniOutliner document to bring it certain features. It also had some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application.

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup, showing what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007, and in January 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was released.

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

OmniFocus 1.10 (circa yesterday, May 21, 2014) :

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.10

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2014.

But all that began to change with the first beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

Little over a year ago, on February 1, 2013, the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

During that 5-month testing window in 2013, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’d been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating that OmniFocus beta. It felt more like a fancy new theme for the Mac app and not a significant improvement of the app’s primary functionality.

Omni Group’s time at the drawing board paid off, and a couple months ago they re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a completely overhauled design.

And that awesome design is front and center of what is shipping today.

OmniFocus 2 for Mac (May 22, 2014):

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

As you can see, there are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles. The checkcircles are pretty cool, I think. For one, they’re a design cue from the iPhone app. But they’re also quite clever.

Technically, they’re called “Status Circles”. From the release notes:

Status Circles provide a colorful nexus of information about each task: is it overdue, flagged, complete, repeating?

Here’s a look at several of the various states of the status circle. (Note that all these items are due, and thus the circles are orange/red instead of grey.)

OmniFocus 2 for Mac - Status Circles

From top to bottom:

  • Red means it’s overdue
  • Orange means it’s due today
  • Grey with a check means it’s been completed
  • The blue background with blue stroke on the edge means that’s the currently selected task
  • The orange box hiding behind the circle is the click target to flag an item. It appears when the mouse is hovering over a task.
  • The little flag to the right means the task has been flagged. The top of the circle also turns a darker orange.
  • The three dots inside a circle mean it’s a repeating task.

The right alignment of the Status Circles is growing on me. At times they feel a bit annoying because when I’m in OmniFocus to check off a task I’ve just completed, I need to first scan the left margin to find the task and then use my mouse to follow that column over to the right in order to decipher which circle on the right-side corresponds with the task on the left. But, the more I use this app the more I like the Status Circles, and their clear portrayal of an action item’s status.

Moreover, by right-aligning the circles, they fit right in with the app’s overarching task hierarchy layout, which now has a clear structure that flows from left to right:

OmniFocus 2 - the left-to-right hierarchy

Click for full-size

  1. On the left-most side are the tabs for different views. Note also that these tabs sport “color bars” to indicate when they have “interesting” content, such as due or overdue actions in the Forecast Perspective, projects that need to be reviewed in the Review Perspective, or unfilled items in the Inbox. You can adjust which tabs can be highlighted in the Notifications panel in the app’s Preferences.

  2. Next to the Tabs column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab. If you’re in Forecast view then you’ll see a calendar, if you’re in the Projects view then you’ll see a list of all your projects, etc.

  3. Third is the main task list displaying the tasks themselves. Here you see only the to-do items for whichever project, context, or date you have selected.

    And here is why the right-alignment of the Status Circles makes sense. Because the status of a task (due, overdue, flagged, repeating, completed, available) is logically more granular than the task itself.

  4. And lastly, on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can adjust all the detailed metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Every one of the design changes in OmniFocus 2 for Mac is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years. The visual overhaul has been worth the wait.

Quick Open

Mash down on CMD+O and the “Quick Open” dialog box pops up.

OmniFocus 2 for mac - Quick Open

Type in the name of a project, folder, context, or perspective and it will auto-fill your text and give you live suggestions (just like you get when doing a Google search).

Quick Open

Quick Open is an easy and fast way to jump to any other section within OmniFocus. But I wish it were just a little bit more powerful…

Whither Universal Search?

My biggest gripe here is that I would love to see universal search. This has always bugged me in OmniFocus, and it was something I was hoping would make it into the new version. Alas, not yet.

When searching in OmniFocus you only see results (or lack thereof) based on the current view. Which means that if you are ever looking for a specific task, if it’s not in front of you already, you have to change OmniFocus’s perspective to one that will list out all your tasks in a giant list. Then you can search for that task and hopefully find it.

I would love to have a universal search that helps me find a task based on its title or note regardless of what my current view / perspective is.

Review and Forecast

The two greatest features of the iPad version are now with us on the Mac. As stated above, I now pretty much live in the Forecast view, and the review mode is just great — though I still prefer to do my reviews on the iPad. I’m glossing over these a bit here, because anyone who’s familiar with OmniFocus on the iPad or iPhone is already aware of how great and useful these two features are. Anyone new to OmniFocus entirely will get introduced to these features when first launching the app.

OmniFocus 2: Standard vs Pro

OmniFocus 2 for Mac now comes in two flavors: Standard and Pro. They cost $40 and $80 respectively (or upgrade for $20 / $40 respectively). All the information about upgrading can be found on the OmniFocus support site.

The biggest difference between the Standard and Pro version is that the latter has a few additional (and powerful) options for customization and adding your own “power features” for seeing and manipulating your tasks. But the core function of the database and everything else is there for everyone.

The Pro features are: (1) the ability to create custom perspectives and to place them in the sidebar; (2) a special Focus view with its own shortcut key that shows you only the currently due tasks within a certain project; and (3) AppleScript support.

From where I’m sitting, I think the Standard version of OmniFocus is probably going to be great for most people. If you don’t already know that you want the Pro features, then save some money (and fiddle-ability) and get the Standard version. While there are a lot of cool things people will tell you that you can do with custom perspectives and AppleScripts, how likely are you to utilize them?

Or, here’s another way to figure out if the Standard version is right for you: Do you almost exclusively use the default views and features in the iPad? If so, then the Standard version of the Mac app will suit you great.

However, that said, here’s a bit more information about what’s in the Pro version (and why I personally am upgrading to it):

  • Custom perspectives: They are nice, but I don’t find them nearly as necessary in OmniFocus 2 as I did in OmniFocus 1. In OF1 I used a custom “Today” perspective that only showed me items that are due (or overdue) today. But that perspective is moot in OF2 because I now live almost entirely in the Forecast view.

    What’s nice about a custom perspective is if you have a particular project or context that you often want to bring up. You can set a project / context as its own new perspective by going to the Perspectives menu → Add New Perspective. Then, when you click the star next to the perspective, it will show up in your OmniFocus sidebar.

    As always, you can set your own custom icons and images for your custom perspectives. I’d highly recommend checking out Jory’s Year of Icons and grab one of the PNGs to use as a custom icon. Unfortunately you cannot replace the default icons that OmniFocus ships with for Inbox, Projects, Contexts, Forecast, Flagged, and Review.

  • Focus on Folders and Projects: This is one feature I don’t utilize at all, but depending on how you have your projects and areas of responsibility organized, it could be a massive help.

    When you enable Focus mode (found under the View menu), OmniFocus hides any and all tasks and projects that aren’t part of the folder or project that you’re focusing on. And they’re not just hidden from the current view, they are hidden throughout the whole app as if they never existed.

    I was talking with Derek Reiff of the Omni Group about the Focus feature, and he shared with me how he uses it:

    Focus is about moving away everything you don’t currently need to see. I separate my tasks at the very top level by using two folders: Work and Home. When I’m at the Omni Group office, I enable Focus on the Work folder and every view or perspective I switch to from that point on will only show Work actions and projects. Then, when I go home, I enable Focus on the Home folder to hide all my Work-related actions and projects.

    If you keep the whole of your life’s tasks in OmniFocus — your job, your side hobby, your home projects, etc. — you just might love the Focus mode.

  • AppleScript Support: This is what compels me to upgrade to the Pro version of OmniFocus 2. I have a couple of AppleScripts that I use with OmniFocus on a regular basis, and it’s worth it for me to pay the additional cost of upgrade to continue to have access to them.

    Here are some links to those scripts, only the OopsieFocus script needed to be updated to work nicely with OmniFocus 2:

    • OopsieFocus: An AppleScript that launches OmniFocus and brings up the Quick Entry box for you on those times you hit the Quick Entry hotkey but realize that OmniFocus isn’t actually running.

      (If you’re using the Standard version of OmniFocus 2, this script can still launch OmniFocus, but it won’t be able to automatically bring up the Quick Entry box.)

    • Send all the Safari Tabs to OmniFocus (with this addition for adding a confirmation notification): This script grabs all the open tabs in Safari’s front-most window and creates a new to-do item in your OmniFocus Inbox with the Title and URL of each tab listed out within the task’s note.

    • Send current Safari Tab to OmniFocus: This isn’t an AppleScript, it’s a snippet of Javascript that’ll work with the Standard version of OmniFocus 2 (and it works in the iOS apps, too). All it does is bring up the Quick Entry box with the title of the website as the task name, and the URL of the website in the note.

Wrap up

This new version of OmniFocus is more feature-rich while also being cleaner, more organized, and more logical. The design brings a structured peacefulness to the wild animal that is my never-ending task list. And that’s quite a feat, because our to-dos are, by nature, neither structured nor peaceful.

You can get OmniFocus 2 on the Mac App Store, or direct from Omni Group’s website.

Recipe for Grilled Artichoke

Speaking of backyard cooking, here is one of my all-time favorite recipes: grilled artichokes with a vinegar cheese dipping sauce.

Artichokes are in season during the summer, and this recipe makes for an amazing appetizer, side, or even a whole meal if you want.

It’s surprisingly easy to do, and it’ll impress the heck out of your friends.

The Dipping Sauce

Ingredients:

  • 3T Mayo
  • 2T vinegar
  • 1T parmesan cheese
  • 2T chives
  • 2t golden mustard
  • Some dashes of parsley

Directions: Add vinegar and parmesan cheese and warm up in microwave to melt the cheese. Then add mayonnaise, mustard, chives, and parsley. Mix.

Butter marinade

Melt and mix 2T Butter with 1t salt and 1t ground pepper for each whole artichoke being cooked.

The Artichokes

  • One artichoke per 2 people is usually enough.

  • Fill a pot with enough water that all the artichokes can be submerged. I also will add a cup or two of chicken or vegetable broth.

  • Boil artichokes in water until the stem is tender enough that a butter knife placed into the top of the stem can easily pierce. (Takes about 45 minutes.)

  • Remove artichokes from water and cut them in half from top to bottom.

  • With a spoon, scoop out the Inner Petals and the Choke (basically all the parts that you don’t want to eat) from each half.

  • Spread the butter marinade onto the inside of the artichoke and get it in between as many of the petals as you can.

  • Place the artichoke halves onto a hot grill with the Heart facing down

  • Cook for 3-5 minutes (sear them; don’t burn to a crisp).

  • Flip over after a few minutes to sear the other side.

  • Add more butter marinade if you have any.

  • Once both sides have been cooked and have grill marks, remove from the grill.

  • Eat it by plucking a petal off at a time and dipping it into the sauce.

Fighting to Stay Creative

Having fun is an excellent way to do our best creative work.

But as anyone who writes or draws or takes pictures for a living will tell you, thinking and creating something awesome every day can be excruciatingly painful. Doing our best creative work day in and day out is difficult. Creative work wears on your mind and your emotions instead of on your joints and muscles. Not to mention the sheer horror involved in the act of taking something you’ve created and putting it out there in public in the hopes of making a dollar so you can make something else and put it out there again.

* * *

On Episode 5 of The Weekly Briefly, Patrick Rhone was my guest and we were sharing some bits of writing advice for people wanting to build a website audience. One of the foundational principals we both agreed on was the immeasurable importance of having fun, which is not as easy as it sounds. As I mentioned above, publishing your creative work to the internet for all the world to see is often a very not-fun thing to do.

Patrick said something that is an excellent guiding principal to help you keep your writing fun: write the internet that you want to read.

There is something freeing about creating for yourself. When we take hold of that baton and create for that second version of ourselves, it’s like having a permission slip to do awesome work. And what better way to have fun than to do awesome work? There’s an inverse truth here as well: most of our best work comes from the place of delight. When we are excited about a project, that creative momentum propels us to think outside the box and to dream new ideas as the project takes residence as the top idea in our mind.

Bill Watterson, the creator of Calvin and Hobbes, would agree. Here’s an excerpt from a speech he gave in 1990 at the Kenyon College commencement ceremony:

If I’ve learned one thing from being a cartoonist, it’s how important playing is to creativity and happiness. My job is essentially to come up with 365 ideas a year. If you ever want to find out just how uninteresting you really are, get a job where the quality and frequency of your thoughts determine your livelihood. I’ve found that the only way I can keep writing every day, year after year, is to let my mind wander into new territories. To do that, I’ve had to cultivate a kind of mental playfulness.

And here’s James Altucher in a Facebook status update about how to write for a living:

The most important thing for me: writing without fear. Writing without judgment. Writing without anger. Making writing fun. Writing right now. Writing is about freedom and not money.

Now, as you probably know all too well, in practice it’s not that easy. But you and I are not alone in our fight to stay creative. We can (and we should!) set ourselves up for success. By identifying the things that suffocate fun and creativity, as well as knowing the things that encourage creativity, we can wage war against the former and cultivate the latter.

Let’s start with the bad news first.

Stiflers of creativity

Below, I’ve listed the things that will cut off our ability and/or desire to do our best creative work. These are things that will whisper in our ear that our idea is pathetic and our implementation of it even worse. They urge us to give up, to move on, to quit, and to pacify our minds. They tell us that we have nothing unique to offer, that we have no value, and that everything will come crashing down any minute, so why even bother.

  • Isolation: Being alone from any community, any peer group, and anybody who you can bounce ideas off of, get feedback from, and just other general human contact that reminds you of the fact you’re a real human being.

  • Ambiguity: Having unknown goals and trying to complete them in an undefined manner with a hazy schedule. Without clear goals, an action plan to accomplish them, and a schedule for when we are going to work, then we just meander around not actually doing anything.

  • Fear & anxiety: This includes fear of failure, fear of rejection. It can paralyze us from even getting started on our ideas because we fear it will come to nothing in the end anyway. Or we fear that when we are finished, people will reject our work and reject us as the author behind it. The problem here is that it puts all the value on the end result only, and places no value at all in the journey of the creative process itself. There is nothing wrong with failure and rejection — we can learn so much from those things! And there is no shortcut for experience. We mustn’t be afraid of failing nor of being rejected, and we must place more value on the act of creating so we can find joy in the journey and develop a lifetime of experience in making things.

  • Shame: Feeling inadequate as an artist at all, embarrassed about the work we’ve done, even embarrassed about the future work we haven’t even done yet. When we feel shame, we shy away from our big bold ideas and the result is a self-fulfilling prophecy and we make something completely devoid of life and opinion.

  • Doubt: Doubting that we have the skills to make anything at all; doubting our value as a creative person.

  • Comparison: There is a difference between learning and gleaning from others and comparing our work to theirs. Where there is comparison there is often envy as well. And this deadly pair will choke out any originality we have. Ray Bradbury, from his Martian Chronicles introduction, wrote: “I did what most writers do at their beginnings: emulated my elders, imitated my peers, thus turning away from any possibility of discovering truths beneath my skin and behind my eyes.”

  • Disillusionment: This is “a feeling of disappointment resulting from the discovery that something is not as good as one believed it to be.” We can get disillusioned in a million ways, and often the result is a loss of vision for doing our creative work. I avoid disillusionment by steering clear of the things and the people that represent what I consider the “worst” things of my areas of interest and work.

When we live with these stiflers of creativity as a permanent ailment for too long, it can lead to burn out. The solution isn’t to quit our creative endeavors altogether, but rather to get rid of the ailment. I will say, however, that quitting (or taking a sabbatical) works sometimes because when you fully remove yourself from the situation you have a chance to deal with the ailment in a new environment.

Identify these enemies in your creative life and wage war against them. Give yourself permission to do what it takes to set yourself up to do the best creative work you can do. Quit Twitter. Move to Atlanta. Only write and publish after 9pm at night. Whatever.

Stimulators and proponents of creativity

These are the things we want to cultivate as much as possible. Build these into your life and guard them with tenacity. These are not replacements for talent, knowledge, and perseverance — rather they are the things that serve as both the seedbed and the greenhouse in which creativity grows and flourishes.

  • Community: You need community to help cultivate your ideas, encourage you to keep working, and to speak truth to you about the things you’re afraid of. If you work from home, community can be tricky. Have a chat room where some of your close friends are available; get out and go to coffee shops or parks; work from a coworking space regularly; eat meals with friends; actively engage in non-work-related relationships.

  • Clear goals: Having a defined goal can help us to focus on actually accomplishing our idea and making it happen. Looming, unanswered questions often lead to inaction and procrastination. Overcoming that is often as simple as defining an end goal. Of course, it’s worth noting that sometimes you just want to go out and take photographs and who cares what you shoot. Nothing wrong with that either, of course.

  • Trust: You have to trust your skills, trust your gut, and trust your value as a contributor. You’re not an impostor. And the more you learn and the more experience you gain, the more your skills will grow. But if you wait until you’ve “arrived” to begin your journey, it’s a logical impossibility that you will ever actually arrive. You have to step out the front door and start walking.

  • Experience: The more times we’ve gone down the same path, the more familiar with it we become. Experience breeds confidence. And confidence is the opposite of doubt. Thus, the more we do the work, the better we get at it. In part, we are getting better because that’s what happens when you practice. But also, we get better because the confidence which experience breeds helps us to loosen up, relax, and take new risks.

  • Rest: A surprisingly critical part of maintaining a consistently creative lifestyle is stepping away from the creative work at hand in order to recharge. The mind is like a battery, however — it recharges by running. Don’t default to TV and video games as your forms of rest. Get plenty of sleep. Take walks or drives. If you work with your mind, try resting with your hands and build something out of wood or plant a garden. Read. Etc.

  • Diligence: This includes spending our time wisely, having a routine, focus, and automation. Diligence isn’t a personality type, it’s a skill we learn. Some of us had a good work ethic instilled in us by our parents, some of us have had to cultivate it on our own later in life. It is silly to think a creative person should live without routine, discipline, or accountability. Sure, inspiration often comes to us when we least expect it, and so by all means, let us allow exceptions to our schedules. But sitting around being idle while we wait for inspiration is a good way to get nothing done. And worse, it is also a way to let the creative juices get stagnant.

Other factors and variables

There are some response-based factors that don’t make or break an artist in and of themselves, but, depending on what they are (and our response to them), they can empower or handicap us.

  • Tools: Tools do not an artist make nor break; but the right tools can empower us to be more efficient and the wrong tools can slow us down.

  • Constraint: Constraint often breeds creativity because it forces us to think outside of the box, but too much constraint can actually stifle a project’s full potential.

  • Praise & criticism: The positive and negative feedback of people can be dangerous. If we take it to heart too much, it can easily lead to pride or depression. We should glean from the feedback we get, but not let it steer us in our goals and direction. One of the most dangerous questions a creative person can ask themselves is: “What if the critics are right?” If they’re right, you’ll already have known it. Let the council of your peers lead you, not the one-off praise or rejection of strangers.

  • Success & failure: Similar to praise and criticism, success and failure can be dangerous. Our successes and failures should be things we learn from and use as stepping stones in our ever-continuing journey to make awesome things. Successes and failures should be celebrated and learned from, but don’t treat them as stopping points.

  • Environment: A positive work environment can do wonders for your daily creative productivity. A distracting environment can stifle things. Do what you can to set up and maintain an awesome environment that fosters inspiration, creativity, focus, and fun.

* * *

As Hemingway said: “Write drunk; edit sober.” Alcohol aside, the point is that creating without inhibition results in better work in the end. Have fun when making, and go back later to fix those typos and bunny trails.

But, that’s not to say fun is the premier goal that in the fight to stay creative. The goal — the hope — is that we can do our best creative work, day in and day out, for years and years.

What’s so great about having fun in our creative work is that it stands as a signal, telling us we are “in the zone”. When we’re having fun in our creative work it usually means we feel safe to dream big and to take new risks. Not to mention, when we’re having fun, it gives us a natural energy that helps us persevere and bring our ideas to life.

Flickr 3.0

Flickr for iPhone version 3

Flickr shipped a massive update to their iPhone app just a few days ago. As an avid user of both Flickr and an iPhone, I wanted to share my thoughts about their new app and bit about the state of Flickr in general.

In short, it’s a fantastic app sporting one of the best iOS 7 updates I’ve seen. It has many visual tie-ins with the also-recently-updated Flickr website. All in all, I am encouraged about the future of Flickr and their resolve to avoid obsolescence.

Instagram Inspiration

There is a lot of Instagram-type inspiration going on, and I like it. When scrolling down the main timeline view you can double-tap on an image favorite it; all images in your main timeline view are shown as edge-to-edge squares even if the image itself is a different aspect ratio.

The notifications screen that shows all the activity happening on your account (people who have liked your images, favorited them, and/or new followers) is also reminiscent of the Instagram notification screen.

In the main photo stream timeline, when someone has uploaded several photos, you see them as a collage of 2 or 3. You can tap on one of the photos you see to bring that photo’s detail view, or you can tap the button to “view all photos” and you’re taken to a gallery-type view showing all the photos in that set.

Navigating around the app

Virtually everything within the app is tappable as a link, which is great. It’s very easy to find and explore new photos and photographers, and thus it’s easy to drill down deep within the app.

Alas, there is no shortcut to get back to any of the top level tabs of the app. Suppose you tap on someone’s photo, then go to their profile timeline page, then tap onto another photo in their timeline, tap onto the comments of that photo, and then tap onto the someone who left a comment to view their profile timeline. Well, now you’re 5 layers deep into the app and it will take 5 taps to get back to the top. And, to add some lemon juice, to exit out of an individual photo view, you have to tap the “x” that’s in the top-right corner of the screen, but to go back a level when you’re on someone’s profile page, you have to tap the back arrow that is on the top-left of the screen. Moreover, since the Flickr app doesn’t have any gestural-based navigation (you can’t swipe from left-to-right to go back), the only way to navigate out of someone’s profile photo stream view is to scroll to the top to reveal the back button.

Overall, the app is extremely well designed and easy to navigate and figure out. The nature of the design and content encourage (in a good way) getting lost in the app and discovering photos and photographers. Just an easier way to get back to the trail head is all I’m asking for.

Pull to Refresh

The pull-to-refresh animation is quite clever. If you’re at the top of the main timeline view, pulling down reveals a white dot. As you continue to pull down to refresh, the white dot gradually turns pink as it simultaneously gets surrounded by a thick blue line (the two colors of the Flick logo). Then the blue line and pink dot separate to form the the two-dot Flickr logo and they sort of spin/orbit around one another.

This animation is even cooler when you pull to refresh from someone’s profile page. The blue line forms around the person’s circle avatar, and those two dots orbit around one another as the page refreshes and then the avatar sort of slingshots back up to where it was.

Auto-Uploading and Privacy

The Flickr app can auto-upload your iPhone photos just like Dropbox does.

So far as I can tell, once you’ve enabled the app’s auto-uploading feature, only your preceding photographs (and screenshots) will be uploaded to Flickr. It won’t begin uploading your whole iPhone Camera Roll.

All your auto-uploaded photos are automatically set to private. This is, in fact, a setting that you cannot change. I like that it’s a non-adjustable setting because it means nobody will accidentally set all their uploads to be public.

Photos that are set to private won’t show up in any public timelines and they are hidden from anyone who views your Flickr profile. You, however, will see the photos the same way all other photos appear in your timeline, and you can set any image to be public if you wish.

Within the iPhone app, photos that are set to private have a little lock icon in their top-left corner. On the Flickr website, the only way to know if a photo is set to private or not is by going to the image’s permalink page where you can see a lock icon.

On the left is what my Flickr photo stream looks like to me, and on the right is what it looks like to others.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

p.s. Here’s what it looks like in a web browser.

For photos that you upload manually from the Flickr app, you are given the option to set the photo’s visibility to Public, Private, Friends only, Family only, or Friends and Family only. (For those not familiar with how Friends and Family works in Flickr, when you chose to follow someone you can define if they are a friend or a family member. Thus, you’re given the option to also set a photo’s visibility to only those groups. Which is actually really great.)

You can also share the upload to Twitter, Facebook, and/or Tumblr. As well as adding the photo to a location (via the Foursquare API), and adding to any of your Flickr Albums (or create a new Album).

The idea of Flickr as a photo Syncing and sharing service

Flickr gives you 1TB (!) of free photo storage, which is pretty amazing.

That amount of storage is certainly enticing when trying to consider a photo backup service to use, but I see two downsides:

  1. For one I’m not sure if I want all my iPhone photos to be in my Flickr account. The past couple years I’ve been only putting my best / favorite photos up to Flickr. There are a lot of silly, blurry, goofy images on my iPhone’s camera roll.
  2. Secondly, not counting the iPhone app, there’s no automatic uploading of my photos to Flickr. I have to manually upload my images. And, suppose I were to upload today all my photos from 2013 — they would appear at the top of my Flickr timeline, because Flickr doesn’t auto-sort by original photo date.

While there are some cool possibilities with using Flickr as a hub for photo sharing and syncing, it’s still not there yet.

In-App Filters

The Flickr app continues to let you take and edit photos as well.

Below is an image of my wife, Anna, holding our new nephew, Simon. The image itself was shot with my E-M10. In clockwise starting with the top-left image: (1) the original out-of-camera JPG; (2) a version edited with the new Flickr app using the Brooklyn filter; (3) edited on the iPhone VSCO Cam app using the F2 filter; and (4) a version edited in Lightroom on my Mac using the VSCO Film 05, Agfa Vista 100 preset.

Flickr for iPhone version 3

(Tap the image to bring up an enlarged view.)

I tried to pick the filter in each app that I liked best for this photograph. Here, comparing them side-by-side here, the Flickr version looks the most dramatic and “cheesy”. I think the VSCO Film version looks the most natural and nice. The VSCO Cam version looks great as well, though it too — for a one-tap filter application on an iPhone, I’m impressed.

Miscellany

  • For a few days, if you installed the Flickr iPhone app onto your iPad you got a watermelon icon. Apparently it was an easter egg placed there by Flickr as a hint that the iPad app is coming soon.

  • When you’re in the detail view of a photograph, you can “toss it around” just like you can with Tweetbot 3 for iPhone. This is a neat and fun touch. However, it’s also the only way to exit the detail view aside from tapping the “x” in the upper-right corner.

    When you tap a photo, it brings up that image in full-view. Tap it again and all the text and photo info on the screen disappears, giving you the “lightbox” mode. Tap in lightbox mode to go back to image-only view with the relevant text again.

  • When leaving a comment, there is no way to reply to a particular person’s comment. You can only type your comment out, but not have it be an “@reply”.

Wrap

The new Flickr app is one of the nicest iOS 7 apps I’ve seen. Its links and tappable areas are clear, it does a great job using blur effects, and it’s easy and delightful to use.

Flickr has so many things right. The whole way the site works is clever, thought through, and useful. But times are changing and so there is still much that Flickr needs to catch up on. But I love that it’s making serious strides forward, and that Yahoo is taking the service seriously. I’ve been a Flickr user for years and I use it now more than I ever have. It’s encouraging and exciting to see these improvements to their website, service, and mobile apps.

Screentime Art

With the recent post and podcast talking about kids and screentime and just the prevalence of touch screens in our day to day lives and relationships, here are two incredible illustrations on the topic that speak volumes.

First is this cover from The New Yorker’s 2009 Halloween edition. This artwork is from half a decade ago, and it’s just as relevant today if not more so.

The New Yorker

And here’s something new. It’s the latest piece of street art from London’s famous graffiti artist, Banksy.

Banksy - Mobile Lovers

Perhaps these two pieces are part of the same story. After taking the kids out trick or treating, mom and dad come home where they can be alone with their phones.

A note about shawnblanc.net and the Heartbleed Bug

Here on shawnblanc.net, I use SSL encryption on a few pages related to the membership sign-up and checkout process. Unfortunately, the OpenSSL libraries in use by this site were affected by the Heartbleed bug. If anyone targeted my server to exploit the vulnerability, it would only have affected members.

This is to let you know that my site’s vulnerability to the Heartbleed Bug has been patched.

My hosting provider (Media Temple) proactively updated my server’s OpenSSL libraries on Tuesday night, April 8th. Once I confirmed my site was no longer vulnerable, I had my SSL certificate re-generated.

Additionally, as a precaution for all members, I’ve logged everyone out from the site and changed the salt hashes that WordPress uses. All members will have to log back in to access the Membership section.

When you do log back in, please change your password. This can be done from the “Your Profile” page.

If you have any questions, please feel free to ping me on Twitter or email me.

Thanks,

— Shawn

A Visual History of OmniFocus for Mac

The Omni Group has been around for 25 years.

Founded in 1989 as a technology consulting firm, they used to build custom software for NextSTEP users until Apple bought NeXT in 1997. Now Omni builds and sells their own software for OS X and iOS. Not least of which is OmniFocus.

But did you know OmniFocus for Mac was somewhat built by chance?

OmniFocus’s roots are as an add-on to OmniOutliner Pro called Kinkless (kGTD), which was built and developed by Ethan Schoonover. Though it was incredibly brilliant, kGTD was a hack. It was a bunch of AppleScripts that sat on top of a single OmniOutliner document with some custom buttons and even some Quicksilver actions for quick entry.

Here is what Kinkless GTD looked like (circa 2006):

Khoi Vihn's Kinkless GTD Setup

In 2006, Omni Group asked Schoonover, along with Merlin Mann, to help take the ideas and functions of kGTD and turn them into an official Omni task-management application…

Here’s the first publicly displayed mockup of what OmniFocus could have looked like:

Original OmniFocus UI Mockup

After more than a year of private development with a group of about 500 alpha users, OmniFocus went into public beta in November 2007. At that time they also began pre-selling licenses and OmniFocus pre-sold over 2,500 copies in the first 5 days of the public beta.1

Finally, on January 8, 2008, OmniFocus 1.0 was launched.2

OmniFocus 1.0 (circa January 2008):

OmniFocus Version 1.0

Here’s the latest public version of OmniFocus (version 1.10):

OmniFocus User Interface, version 1.8

As you can see, not much in the UI has changed from the original Kinkless implementation of 2005 to what OmniFocus is today in 2010. You could say that OmniFocus 2 is kGTD 2.

But all that changed with the beta of OmniFocus for Mac 2.

On February 1, 2013 the beta of OmniFocus 2 for the Mac was introduced.

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 (circa Feb 2013):

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

Beta 1 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

However, during the beta testing process, the Omni Group realized they needed to go back to the drawing board, and in June 2013 they pressed pause on the public beta.

Last year, during the testing window, I gave the beta 1 a good college try but just kept drifting back to my original version of OmniFocus that I’ve been using for the past 4 years. In short, I never felt all that comfortable navigating the previous OmniFocus beta.

However, earlier this week, Omni Group re-introduced the OmniFocus for Mac beta with a significantly updated design.

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac (circa March 2014)

Beta 2 of OmniFocus 2 for Mac

There are quite a few noticeable changes between the beta 1 and beta 2 designs of the new OmniFocus for Mac.

For one, the left-aligned checkboxes have been swapped out with right-aligned checkcircles (a cue from the iPhone app). Additionally, the whole task hierarchy now has a clear structure that flows from left to right.

On the left-most side are the tabs for different views, then in the next column is the list of information relevant to the selected tab, next to that is the main task list displaying the tasks for the project, context, or date selected, and then on the right-most pane is the task’s information panel where you can fine-tune metadata related to that task if you so desire.

Aside from the right-hand alignment of the new checkcircles, I think every one of the changes in this newest OmniFocus beta is an improvement on an app that has been desperate for a visual overhaul for years.

The new beta version of OmniFocus for Mac feels peaceful to me. It’s open, clean, organized, and logical. I like it.


  1. Contrast that against today’s public beta which has 30,000 users on the list.
  2. It seems like OmniFocus has been around for ages, but it’s actually younger than the iPhone.

Dumb

The more I read about smartwatches, the more I appreciate my “dumb” watches.

Analog Watches

These are the two watches I wear. The one on the left is a Tissot, and the one on the right a Seiko automatic. Most days I wear the Seiko.

Here is an exhaustive rundown of all the functionality of my watches: They tell the time of day (albeit they’re imprecise, and usually off by half a minute or so) and the date. The Seiko, being fancy, also tells the day of the week. And since neither watch knows what month it is, a few times per year I have to adjust the date forward from “29″ or “31″ to “1″.

That’s it.

But I don’t just wear a watch to know what time it is. Part of the reason I wear one is as an excuse not to pull out my iPhone.

So often I’d be standing in line at the grocery store and I’d pull out my iPhone to see what time it was. Then, out of sheer habit, I’d swipe to unlock and the next thing you know I’m mindlessly scrolling through tweets or reading emails without actually acting on them. Then the line would move, I’d put the iPhone back in my pocket, and if you’d asked me what time it was I couldn’t even tell you.

My analog watches are my reminder that utility exists apart from an internet connection and usefulness doesn’t require the latest software.

My watches don’t have an interactive touch display. Nor do they have Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, LTE, or USB. Heck, the Seiko doesn’t even have a battery — if I don’t wear it for a day or two then it stops working until I wind it again.

There are no apps for my watches. I can’t pair them with my iPhone, can’t give them voice commands, can’t get directions from them, nor can I use them to change my music to the next track.

On the flip side, my watches don’t require updates, and they won’t be “slow and outdated” in one year’s time after the next version comes out. In fact, they will never grow outdated and irrelevant unless they break altogether.

In 15 or 20 years my sons will hopefully think it’s special when I pass down one of my old watches to them.

That’s not to say vintage technology isn’t special. But an old watch is simultaneously special and usable. In 20 years my original iPhone, as special and nostalgic as it will be, probably won’t even power on.

My affinity for analog watches doesn’t mean I dislike the concept of the smartwatch. My iPhone is one of the most incredible items I have ever owned and used. But my experience with it has also taught me that the promise of convenient notifications and relevant information is almost always paired with the reality of constant distractions, tugs for attention, and perhaps even an addiction to the “just checks”.

When I look down at my watch I know exactly what it will show me: the time.

Checkmark 2

Here is a huge update to my favorite location-based reminders app, Checkmark.

In addition to location-based reminders, Checkmark 2 now supports scheduled and repeating reminders as well as a general project/list section. So not only is Checkmark the best app for location-based reminders, but it now aims to be your one-stop shop for all tasks and reminders, regardless of when, where, or what they are for.

I’m still deep into OmniFocus for my general to-do list, and I usually use Siri or Fantastical for setting time-based reminders. But the location-centric stuff in Checkmark is the best there is, and now it’s even better than before.

The big update with how Checkmark handles the location-based reminders is that you can now create location groups. Hooray!

Now, I don’t know about you, but my wife and I don’t shop at just one grocery store all the time; we shop at like six. In Checkmark 2, I created a location group with all the grocery stores we shop at. Then, no matter which of those stores I show up to, Checkmark will remind me of any items I’ve added to that group. (Gosh would I love to see shared reminders with this.)

Here’s how you create a group:

  • You start out just like you would create a location.
  • From the “Where” section, tap the plus button and name your location (example: “Grocery Stores” / “Hardware Stores” / “Ice Cream Shops”).
  • Next tap “Add from map” to search for the places you want to add (or Add from location if you’re at the place you want to add).
  • Once you’ve found one of the locations and the pin for it has dropped, then tap into the search box again to search for the next place you want to add.
  • Once you’ve got all the pins for that group dropped, then tap “Done”
  • Select your icon and tap Done again.

Now you have a location group and you are on your way to being the the master of never forgetting to check out this season’s sink selection next time you go to the hardware store to buy charcoal for your grill.

You can add or remove locations from a group by tapping into that group, tapping the settings gear icon in the upper-right corner, and then editing the location. I have found creating and editing groups to be a little bit finicky at times. But once a group is created, then your golden.

In addition to the awesomeness of the new groups feature, Checkmark is still faster than using any other app for adding a location-based reminder (even for specific spots, not groups). And, most importantly, Checkmark is incredibly reliable for triggering upon the arrival / departure of a location.

My one quibble with Checkmark is it’s assumption that time-based reminders are the most important. When launching Checkmark, it opens to wherever you last were in the app. If however, the app has been cleared from memory since the last time you launched it, or if you’ve restarted your iPhone, then Checkmark’s default landing screen is the “When” section. And currently there’s no way to change this setting. Which oftentimes means creating a new location-based reminder requires two additional taps: one to open the basement menu and one to tap the “Where” tab. But this is a minor quibble, and I’ve heard it may be resolved in a future update to the app.

I’ve long been a user and a fan of Checkmark because I think it handles location-based reminders better than any other app out there, including Apple’s own Reminders app. You can snag Checkmark 2 in the App Store for just $3.

Reporter, Day One, and Launch Center Pro

About five weeks ago, on February 6th to be exact, Nicholas Felton’s Reporter app shipped.

The whole gist of the app is to give yourself a pretty good idea of how you spend your time, where you spend your time, and who you spend it with. I set up Reporter to ask me 11 questions related to where I was, who I was with, my outfit, if I was eating/drinking anything, my mood and general feeling of productivity for the day, the tools I was using at the time, and what the last app I had launched was.

My first report was logged on at 9:49am on Thursday morning, February 6. My last report at 1:04pm on Monday morning, February 17. I only used the app for 12 days. As much as I loved the idea of Reporter, the multiple interruptions throughout my day weren’t worth the aggregate data I was collecting.

From the 12 days I used the app, I learned that 92-percent of the time I was feeling productive with my day and 98-percent of the time I was in a happy mood. Most of my outfits consisted of pants, slippers, and a sweater (Polar Vortex, remember?); only once did I wear a hat and only once did I get prompted for a report while in my underwear. I mostly drank water. My most commonly-used tools were my Mac and my Clicky Keyboard. A little over half the time I was working; the vast majority of my time was spent at home; most of the time I was alone, but when I was with someone it was usually my oldest son, Noah.

One interesting-slash-revealing fact I learned was regarding the apps I was launching on my iPhone. Reporter would ask me what app I had previously launched. I answered this by double-tapping my Home button to bring up the multitasking card view just enough to see what app was next in line. The most common app I found there was Threes game, with Email in second place, and then Tweetbot. Hmm.

Is this the truth revealing itself? Perhaps. But perhaps not. As I pontificated on one of my Shawn Today podcast episodes a few weeks ago when talking about this same topic, I recall being much more likely to fill out the Reporter report if I was already doing something non-trivial on my iPhone or if I was not in the company of others.

I often would ignore the reports when I was in the middle of reading, or writing, or when I was with other people (especially when I was with Anna). So it’s hard to say just how accurate these reports reflect my life, let alone the 12-day segment.

In the end, I stopped using Reporter because, as I mentioned above, the frequent interruptions were not worth the aggregate data they were generating.

But I’ve found another way to help automate the “reporting” process using some apps that I already have in my iOS tool belt: Launch Center Pro and Day One.

I came across these Launch Center Pro actions that Josiah Wiebe cooked up, and I think they’re very clever. Josiah has put together a handful of customized Launch Center Pro actions for the purpose of logging meals, drinks, books, films, and more. Using the actions in Launch Center Pro basically enables you to answer a few questions (some of which can even be multiple-choice) and then auto-insert those answers into Day One in a nicely formatted layout.

For example, here’s my Coffee Log entry from yesterday morning’s brew.

I also installed several of Josiah’s actions into my Launch Center Pro, and for the past ten days I’ve been using the coffee log and the daily summary. Though, I tweaked his actions slightly to build versions that are more suited to my own needs and layout preferences.

For example, since I almost always get my coffee from one of two local roasters — Parisi or Broadway (if I didn’t roast it myself) — I changed my Coffee Log action to offer the Roaster as a multiple choice option. And for my Daily Summary action, I set up a reminder in Launch Center Pro to ping me each evening.

Since Day One already is grabbing my location, weather, steps taken, and I can add a photo if I like (a selfie, perhaps?), I find these daily summaries to be an excellent compromise when compared to the more-detailed, but more frequent logging of Reporter.

However, it’s not a perfect system. For one, I miss is the way Reporter auto-populated certain answers making it easy to answer the same thing again. In LCP, if I am entering in the same answer to the same question on a regular basis I either have to type that answer in manually, or decide if I want to limit my answers to a pre-defined multiple choice list. There is no option (that I know of) to offer a multiple-choice prompt that can be converted into a text entry prompt on the fly.

And, now that I’m entering in more and more entries which use markdown-based tables and header tags, my Day One timeline view is not so pretty any more. Because Day One shows the raw markdown in its “timeline” view. I mentioned this to Paul Mayne on Twitter, however, and he said it’s something they’d like to add to the 2.0 update of Day One.

Speaking of potential future updates to Day One, I think it’d be great to see this sort of “guided/automated logging” built into Day One. The app already offers reminders that remind you to write in your journal, but sometimes that wide-open blank page is just too intimidating. Having specific questions can not only lead to more frequent journaling/logging, but when you’re answering the same ones over and over, though it may feel silly in the moment, over time it paints a picture about our lives that when we look back at it, we are reminded of who we were and who we are.

That’s why I’m personally quite the advocate for daily journaling. Because little things, day by day, usually don’t seem like much in the moment, but over the course of months and years, we are changing and maturing as individuals and it can be so valuable and downright encouraging to be able to look back and see that change.

Or, in the words of Kayli Stollak: “All you need is a sentence, a word, a thought, and suddenly you remember who you actually were.”

This Is a Review of Day One’s New Publish Feature

Day One Publish

In a nut, the new Publish feature in Day One is a way to share your thoughts and memories with your closest friends and family or with the whole world.

Publish lets you selectively upload Day One entries to the Web, and from there you can share the URL with whomever you like.

For example, here is an entry in my Day One journal about my recent excursions at a local coworking space. And here’s another entry with a rating/review of this morning’s cup of coffee.

As of this review, you can only publish an entry via the iPhone app, though there’s a soon-coming update for iPad that will allow publishing. Meanwhile, the Mac app has been updated to support the new custom Publish metadata (such as views on an entry, retweets, etc.), but an update to the Mac version that allows you to publish entries won’t be available until later this year.

To publish an entry from your iPhone, start by creating an entry (or going to one that you’ve already made) in Day One. Then tap the little ribbon-bookmark icon in the bottom left corner (that’s the Publish icon). If it’s your first time you’ll be prompted to create an account, and then you can publish that entry to the Web.

Before publishing, you get control over if that entry is auto-posted to your Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare account. You also get to choose if the location of that entry is shared.

Once you’ve published an entry, the Day One app will show you stats about how many people have viewed that entry and how many liked, faved, or RTed your tweet / Facebook status update about that journal entry. And Published entries are quickly identified within your Day One app’s timeline view because of their blue date instead of black. Moreover, you can update a published entry and/or remove it from being published.

You don’t have to share your published entries with your legions of social network followers. You see, people can only get to entries that they have the direct link to. So, say, for example, you publish two entries: one you share with all of your twitter followers and the other you share with just your family. Well, neither group will ever come across a link that would send them on to the other entry you published.

Day One Publish is not like a blog where links to other entries are auto-generated and once you come across one you can find all the others. No, each published entry is an island.

I asked Paul Mayne, the man behind Day One, to share a bit more about just how private / non-discoverable published entries are and why there is not an option for password protecting them. Paul wrote to me in an email, saying:

By default, published entries are hidden from search engines and visible only to anyone you give the URL. Of course, if you are sharing to a public feed on Twitter, Facebook, or Foursquare, the URL will be indexed and searchable.

We feel our current approach is a solid solution to share entries semi-privately with close friends and family. Also, we’re planning to add an option to easily share published entries via email in a future update.

I’m satisfied with how Day One handles the privacy of each entry. I’m obviously never going to publish anything that is so sensitive or personal that I wouldn’t want just anybody to come across it. If and when there are certain journal entries that I don’t want to be online at all but that I do want to share with close friends or family, it’s quite easy to just email those entries from within the Day One app.

After using Day One’s Publish feature for the past two weeks, I think it’s cool on a couple of levels.

For one, Publish gives you the chance to share moments you want to share. And thus, it actually gives a bit of “social motivation” to enter things into Day One. The truth is, we like to share thoughts, photos, quotes, and musings with the world, but a lot of times we also want to save those moments for later. Publish is a classy way for us to create journal entries in our own personal journal, but then, with the tap of a button, we can share those entries with whomever we want — even the whole world.

Secondly, with Publish, the Day One team also wins because when people share their Published entries they are, in a sense, advertising for Day One. They’re providing an awesome service to current users that will, in term, generate new users, and therefore make the app’s development more sustainable and profitable.

This brings me to another question I asked Paul, regarding the cost of Publish and if it would be free forever. He replied that the current offering is free, but they are looking into additional premium features in the future.

Also, Paul wrote to me saying: “We’re currently hard at work on Day One 2.0. A cool feature with it will be current and historical activity feeds as starting points for creating and adding entries to Day One. We are [also] working towards enabling more web-based Publish and Day One features.”

* * *

The whole point of a journal (digital or analog) is to chronicle as much of our life as we are willing. I’ve been using Day One for a couple of years now, and the more I use it, the more I get ideas for how to use it better.

The guys at Day One say that Publish has been a side-project of theirs since the very beginning and is the start of “an exciting 2014 for Day One.” In my short time with Publish, I’ve found that it has a surprisingly ancillary effect of encouraging the journaling process just a little bit more. I still consider Day One to be the best journaling app out there, and if this is just the start of what they’ve got in store for updates coming this year, then I’m excited to see what’s next.

You can get Day One for iPhone + iPad here and the Mac version here. Although, right now you can only use the Publish feature from the iPhone version of the app.

Talking About iPads and Real Work

The always astute, Lukas Mathis, wrote a fantastic article about why he switched from an iPad to a Microsoft Surface so he could finally do “real work” using a tablet:

In general, I really love the Surface, and I use it much more, and for many more things, than I ever used any iPad I ever owned.

His thoughts on doing productive tasks with an iPad, and his review of Windows 8 — in which he clearly articulates the good, bad, and horrible — is all just excellent.

There are folks who are tiring of this whole racket around if we can or can’t use the iPad for real work. But I’m not tired of this topic at all.

The way I see it, being part of this ongoing conversation about “using the iPad for real work” is sort of like sitting in the front row and watching the personal and mobile computer landscape shift right before our eyes.

To quote Albert Einstein: “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

As amazing as mobile and personal computing is today, it is still in its infancy. The iPad is only a few years old, and think of how far it has come already. Twenty years from now, the average PC will probably be much more like a tablet (or a cell phone) and much less like a laptop/desktop. When my oldest son starts his freshman semester in the fall of 2030, I doubt we’ll be weighing the pros and cons of the iPad’s ability to do real work.

One day, as Lukas himself points out in his article, it won’t be newsworthy when someone does something creatively productive on their iPad:

If it was normal for people to use their iPads for creative tasks, there would not be newspaper articles about people using their iPads for creative tasks. The iPad will have arrived as a productivity device when news sites stop reporting about people who use iPads for productivity. So in the end, all of these links to articles about people who use their iPads to create things only seem to support the notion that this is not how most people use their iPads.

He’s right. Most people probably use their iPads for reading, surfing the web, light email, and checking Facebook and Twitter. And that’s fine.

But then there are apps like Drafts, Diet Coda, PDF Expert 5, Launch Center Pro, Editorial, and so many others (plus all the equivalent Windows 8 apps that I have no idea what they are) which are pushing mobile computing forward in small steps.

And those who are using these apps are also influencing the future of mobile computing. Because, and maybe I’m being grandiose, but I think those who are doing “real work” from their iPhone and iPad, are, in a small way, helping steer the direction of the personal computer.

Regarding the Olympus 25/1.8 Lens and the Panasonic Leica 25/1.4

There are now two nifty fifty lenses for the Micro Four Thirds system: the infamous Panasonic 25mm f/1.4 and the new Olympus 25mm f/1.8.

Some of the initial comparison reviews of the Olympus 25mm f/1.8 lens are in and they’re not what I expected them to be. It seems the choice between either the Panasonic or the Olympus lens isn’t an obvious one.

The Panasonic 25/1.4 is my favorite lens for M43. And it’s not just me — this lens has long been heralded as one of the finest pieces of M43 glass you can get.

However, as you may recall, when I bought my E-PL5 in the fall of 2012, I went with the 20/1.7 pancake lens as my daily shooter. For me, the size was a very important factor and at the time I didn’t want to have both the 20mm pancake lens and the 25mm.

But, after renting the 25/1.4 for the second time this past Christmas, I decided to just buy the thing (along with the new E-M10).

What I like about the 25/1.4 is that it has a much faster auto-focus than my 20/1.7 pancake lens1 and produces a more shallow depth of field with creamier bokeh. Also, the 25/1.4 has a distinct character to it — not only is it a handsome and well-built lens, it takes great shots that have a contrast and look to them which I think is great.

Then, Olympus came out with their own 25mm lens: the 25/1.8. Ugh.2 The Olympus lens comes in black, it is $130 cheaper than the Panasonic 25/1.4 lens ($399 and $529 respectively), and it’s a bit smaller. Anyway, I decided to stick with my Panasonic lens because it is about 2/3 of a stop faster (f/1.4 vs f/1.8).

A few comparison reviews have now started rolling in, and it looks like the Olympus lens is almost as great as the Panasonic.

If you check out Robin Wong’s side-by-side comparison shots, the difference between the two lenses is not as distinct as I would have expected. The images from the Olympus lens look great and have a character all their own, even when set side-by-side with the Panasonic lens.

Though I will say that I prefer the images from the Panasonic. Also I think the Panasonic is a better looking lens on the camera itself — as awesome as the Olympus lenses are, they are also, unfortunately, kinda ugly.

But that’s not the whole story. The Olympus lens has better corner-to-corner sharpness and its auto focus speed is even faster and quieter to that of the Panasonic.

And so the big question is this: is the extra cost and extra size of the Panasonic lens worth it? Well, Steve Huff says no:

The Panasonic is slightly sharper here but not by much at all. To me, the benefits of the Olympus ($129 less, smaller, faster AF, silent focus, more neutral color) beat out that small miniscule [sic] sharpness difference.

A year and a half ago, when I originally decided to go with the Micro Four Thirds system, my decision was predominantly influenced by the lens selection. Though mirrorless cameras have all come a long way since then, the M43 system continues to have one of the more impressive and affordable lineups of awesome lenses and compact bodes.

While I won’t be trading in my Panasonic lens for the new Olympus, for those who’ve been holding out on the former and waiting for the latter, it looks like it was worth the wait.


  1. The 20mm f/1.7 pancake lens does have notoriously slow auto focus. I’ve talked with people who have experience with nearly every single M43 lens, and the 20/1.7 has the slowest AF of them all.
  2. The worst thing about being into photography is also the best thing: there are so many darn choices for amazing gear!

The 2014 Membership Drive and Giveaway

Yes! Welcome to the Fourth Annual Membership Drive and Giveaway. Everyone loves winning free stuff and I love giving it away.

Yesterday I kicked off this year’s membership drive with a heartfelt note. If you haven’t yet read it, please take a minute to do so. The annual membership drive kickoff note is one of the most difficult things I write all year. It’s important to me that I get the words just right to communicate just how grateful I am for the support of all the subscribing members.

Many of you have read yesterday’s article already, and to all of you who have signed up for a new membership in the past 24 hours: thank you! But it’s not just about encouraging new members to sign up. It’s also about reminding current members just how valuable their ongoing support really is. And so, to all the current members who continue to keep their membership active: thank you. And, of course, to those about to join: thank you, too.

I could not be writing here full-time without the generous support of the members. It means the world to me that readers are directly supporting the work I do here.

Ideally, you are signing up to become a member because the value and enjoyment you get from shawnblanc.net is worth it to you, and the members-only perks are a nice bonus of course. But my job is to try and sweeten the deal as much as possible. And so, I’ve put together some things to be won if you sign up to become a member.

For those of you who have not yet signed up to be a member, there is, as they say, no time like the present.

Seven Boxes of Awesomeness

This year I’m giving away something different. Over the last several months I have personally collected a stash of awesome items, and put them together to make seven unique gift boxes, each with its own theme.

The Seven Boxes of Awesomeness are:

1. Coffee Box A

An Awesome Box

A pair of custom coffee mugs, hand thrown and fired in Denver, Colorado by my friend Matt Jorgensen and which I commissioned specifically for this giveaway; a Hario V60 pour over coffee dripper with filters; and a Kyle Steed print.

2. Coffee Box B

An Awesome Box

A pair of custom handleless coffee mugs, hand thrown and fired in Denver, Colorado by my friend Matt Jorgensen and which I commissioned specifically for this giveaway; an AeroPress coffee maker; and a Kyle Steed print.

3. The Productivity Box

An Awesome Box

A Field Notes Pitch Black pack; one Best Made Co. Famous Red Notebook; a Behance Action Runner in blue; three Signo DX 0.38mm fine-tip gel ink pens (my personal favorite pen); and an Origami Workstation for iPad.

4. The Games Box

An Awesome Box

Includes the Dominion base game and the Puerto Rico board game. Both are favorites here at the Blanc house.

5 & 6: The Dapper boxes

An Awesome Box

A custom silk pocket square courtesy of Need; a silver tie stay, also courtesy of Need; a hardcover copy of the Eighteenth Edition of Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations.

7. The Pixel Pusher Box

An Awesome Box

A signed copy of Mike Rhode’s Sketchnote Handbook; a 10-pack of Triplus Fineliner marker pens; a ruled Moleskine notebook; and a United Pixelworkers hat and standard issue patch.

How to Win

  • Anyone who signs up for a membership by midnight CST on Sunday, March 2 will automatically be in the runnings to win something.

  • Current members are, as always, automatically entered to win as well. In short, if you’re an active member as of Sunday night, March 2, then you’re entered to win.

  • You do not have to live in the United States to win.

  • The drawing will be the first week in March. Winners will be contacted by via the email associated with their membership (which is your PayPal email address if you’re a longstanding member still on the PayPal system).

  • If there is a certain box in particular that you’d like to win over another, please fill out this form. I will check it once the winners are drawn and try and assign each winner their first-choice if possible. You do not have to fill out the form to win, only to request a particular prize.

If you haven’t yet signed up to become a member, now would be a good time.

Update on March 3, 2014: The membership drive has come to an end. Thanks so much to all who signed up over the past two weeks, and to all the longstanding members who have supported this site for the past several years. For those who are not signed up as members, you can, of course, sign up at any time. And when you do you get instant access to the members-only podcast, Shawn Today, as well as access to the reruns page which features every show ever recorded (currently 485 episodes and counting).

Reader Supported for Three Years (And Counting…)

Sitting in front of my laptop’s camera, I felt so out of place and a little bit out of my mind.

That was February 2011, when I first announced that I would be quitting my day job to begin writing shawnblanc.net as my full-time gig. I knew I couldn’t keep writing full-time without some monthly support from a subscribing membership base.

And so I dressed up in my only suit, put on a tie, and recorded a video using the iSight camera on my old, aluminum 15-inch MacBook Pro. I didn’t know what to say then, and, three years in to things, I still don’t know what to say.

I spent several days making that video, trying to get the wording just right. How do you ask people to pay you to write about software, technology, and creativity and stuff?

Well, like this: You just ask. Put your hat out there and leave yourself to the — cough — generosity of your readers. And so here we are. This will be the fourth time I step out from behind the keyboard and hold my hat out and ask for your support.

It boils down to this: I’m writing and publishing the websites I want to read; I am giving all I have to do the best creative work that I can; and I couldn’t do this as my full-time gig without the support of this site’s subscribing members.

It has been an honor and a privilege to write for you, dear reader, these past three years. Though I don’t know what the next three years hold for this website, I hope — and believe — that my best creative work is still before me.

I think there are two elements which form the foundation of a successful creative business: creative freedom and financial stability. Therefore, I define creative success as having the opportunity to do work we’re proud of and the resources to keep doing that work.

In that vein, I consider shawnblanc.net a success. There isn’t a specific website, blog post, ebook, or podcast episode, that I would point to as being “it”. But that’s the point. I hope that over the past three years, I have contributed a little bit to the ever expanding and ever improving creative space we’re a part of.

I would be glad if I had done no more than to have helped carry on and facilitate our conversations and motivations for doing awesome work, making fantastic things, and feeling empowered to take risks.

For all of you who have been generous with your time over these years, coming here to spend a little bit of time reading, I thank you. And especially to those who have been generous with their money and have signed up for a membership. Your support of this site means the world to me and it serves as an indescribable encouragement that what I’m doing is worthwhile.

Now, that said, let’s talk briefly about this year’s Membership Drive.

A preview of this year’s membership drive and giveaway

This is the fun part… as usual, I’ll be doing a membership drive and giveaway.

Now, I’ll be posting more details about the giveaway tomorrow, but for now let’s just say that it’s very different than anything I’ve done here before.

Instead of hundreds of smaller prizes, I have instead put together just a handful of substantial prizes: Seven Boxes of Awesomeness, put together by myself. Each box has a select few items related to a few specific themes.

A note to current members

All current members are automatically entered to win, of course. The giveaway is not exclusive to new members only.

Secondly, and somewhat unrelated, last year I moved the membership software off of a PayPal-based system and onto a new, Stripe-based system. The new Stripe-based membership is significantly better in many ways. For those of you with memberships still being billed through PayPal, I encourage you to migrate over to the new Stripe system. You can find out all about the why and how right here.

Act now! How to become a member

If the value you get from this website is worth $4/month to you, then I hope you’ll consider signing up to become a member. As a member you’ll get access to my daily podcast, Shawn Today, and you’ll be directly contributing to the work I do here on a daily basis.

Moreover, signing up for a membership now means you’ll be entered to win one of the Seven Boxes of Awesomeness.

Sign up here. Then, tell your friends to sign up, tell your mom to sign up, and give yourself a very high five.

iPad: Air or mini?

Both iPads are an awesome compromise.

One of them (the iPad Air) has the bigger screen, and chances are it’s light enough. While the other (the iPad mini) is hyper-portable and light, and chances are its screen is big enough.

It’s easy to acclimate to either iPad. After a few days you’ll wonder why it was ever such a dilemma of a choice in the first place. When I’ve used just the iPad Air, I acclimated to its size and weight even though the iPad mini is nicer. And, conversely, when I used the iPad mini, I acclimated to its smaller screen even though the iPad Air’s bigger screen is nicer for some tasks.

I bought both an iPad Air and an iPad mini when they came out. I planned to use them side by side for about one month to see if I could come to a clear conclusion about “which was really the best”. I assumed it would take just a few weeks to see the obvious choice of which one I was partial to.

Boy was I wrong.

I’ve been using both iPads side-by-side for three months now and, well, I prefer them both. They are both favorites.

When I switch back and forth, after using the iPad mini for a while, the iPad Air feels almost comically large. But then, after using the iPad Air for a while, picking up the iPad mini feels almost tiny.

But, most of the time I find myself preferring the iPad mini. When reaching for an iPad around the house, I grab the mini. The mini goes with me when I’m traveling with my laptop. And I bring the mini when I don’t expect to need an iPad for anything but want to bring one anyway just in case.

There is only one cut and dry scenario in which I prefer the iPad Air: and that is for writing (with or without a bluetooth keyboard). But, yet, writing accounts for maybe 10-percent of my iPad usage. And using the iPad mini for writing is not exactly a horrible experience.

I have no reason to keep them both. (Well, I guess it’d be nice to have a day iPad and a night iPad.) And so I’m going with the iPad mini. And thus my recommendation to anyone on the fence: get the iPad mini, you’ll love it.

Unread for iPhone: A New Breed of RSS Reader

There are some apps which, due to the nature of their usage and/or contents, seem to earn a more personal connection from the user than other apps. Twitter apps I think are like this because they’re filled with the life updates, corny jokes, and selfies of our friends and family. Writing apps also can garner a connection with their users because they serve as the tool where we express our thoughts and feelings.

And though one might expect an RSS app to be insipid, or, at best, utilitarian, I find them quite the opposite — because they’re filled with the recent articles, photographs, and stories of my hand-chosen, favorite writers, photographers, and news outlets.

An RSS reader is the window into your curated world.

* * *

Like so many other life-changing moments, my relationship with RSS readers began in a church pew.

It was a Sunday morning in early 2007, and our Church had Wi-Fi, and I was sitting in a back corner with a friend, and instead of using my PowerBook G4 to take notes I was surfing the web reading all my favorite blogs.

If you’ve read my review of NetNewsWire, you’re already familiar with the story: I used to keep all the blogs I enjoyed reading in a bookmark folder in Safari on my Mac. But that Sunday morning, sitting next to my friend, he introduced me to an RSS reader.

“You can follow all those sites in one spot, you know?”

I didn’t know.

He set me up with the RSS reader in Safari (which has long since been removed). But I soon moved on to Vienna, and then NetNewsWire 3.1 on the Mac (which, in my humble opinion, is one of the all-time best pieces of Mac software ever).

I’ve also used Google Reader, NewsGator Online, Reeder for Mac, iPad, and iPhone, ReadKit, NetNewsWire on my iPhone, Byline, Fever, and probably a few more.

And now, today, we have Unread. It’s a brand new RSS app for the iPhone, and it is fantastic.

Unread

I have been using Unread throughout its beta period for the past two months, and in that time it has quietly usurped the previous RSS reader on my home screen.

Unread works with Feed Wrangler, Feedbin, and Feedly. I’ve been using it with my Feed Wrangler account and it loads my unread items extremely quickly.

Unread is also very fun. It’s full of subtle animations and easy gestures. The app is understated, extremely readable, and welcoming.

It’s not that there’s anything in particular. There’s just a simple elegance to it. The app is well designed and nice to use.

It’s on launch sale for just $3 and I think it’s worth 10 times that. I paid $30 for NetNewsWire on my Mac half a decade ago, and now, years later, I’m using Unread on my iPhone instead.

Unread is somewhat different than any other app I’ve used before. And yet it’s also quite familiar. It has all the expected features — you can send an article to Instapaper or share it on Twitter or text message it to your friends — and yet they feel unexpected. The share sheet slides in from the right-hand side, and feels akin to the bouncy and playful animations of Tweetbot 3.

Design

I’ve long been a fan of Jared Sinclair’s design taste, and I consider Riposte to be one of the finest apps on my iPhone. I can’t put my finger on precisely what it is, but if I had to explain it in one word then I’d say Unread is peaceful.

But my hunch is that Unread will prove to be a somewhat polarizing app. Some, like me, will love it. Others, undoubtedly, will not like it.

The app has nearly both feet in iOS 7, but there is still a toe or two in iOS 6. There are little things — such as the design of the status bar at the top of the screen — that still feel reminiscent of iOS designs from yesteryear. But don’t read that as a dig against the app’s design…

The status bar doesn’t look like it belongs in the past, but it does have a slight nostalgic feel to it that is reminiscent of the more skeumorphic, graphics-heavy iOS designs of old. I am a fan of the status bar.

Gestures

When talking about Riposte, developer Jared Sinclair, said this:

We take push/pop transitions at face value: swiping to go back is like pulling yourself back to where you were before. If I can’t picture an app as a set of cards laid out in a grid on a table, I can’t understand it.

That exact same gesture-reliant design philosophy is prevalent all throughout Unread as well. The set of cards include (starting at the left-most, topmost “card”) the Home screen, the list of subscribed feeds and any folders or groups, the list of articles in those feeds, and then the article itself.

Hovering (theoretically) at all times to the right, is the share/action card. Pulling from right-to-left in any screen slides in the share sheet. From there you get access to a list of relevant actions and settings.

Unread App - Share Sheets

Common settings include changing themes (dark, light, and others), marking all articles as read, and more.

But the action sheet shows different options based on the context of when it was summoned. If you’re acting on a specific article, for example, then you have the option to “Share” the article and thus send it to Instapaper, Pinboard, OmniFocus, Twitter, your Safari Reading List, and more. To share a specific article directly from the article list view you have to tap and hold on that article.

By using this gesture-based share sheet, Unread has no persistent toolbar when reading an article. When in the various list views you see the status bar on top and a “navigation” bar on bottom that tells you where you are in the app. But when reading an individual article, you’re in full screen mode with nothing visible but the article itself.

Navigation and density

Unread’s home screen is where you start with access to the app’s settings and other special miscellany, as well as the RSS syncing platform of your choice (FeedWrangler, Feedbin, and/or Feedly). You then drill down to the high-level list of your feeds under your syncing engine account, and from there you can select which list of your articles you want to dig in to: all unread, all articles, one of your smart streams or folders, or your specific site feeds.

All of these sections — these “cards” — exude the basic design philosophy and opinion of Jared Sinclair: that the app would be a relaxing and enjoyable experience. But it is especially present when perusing down your list of individual unread articles.

Unlike most other RSS apps I’ve used, Unread shows considerably more content-per-article when viewing the list of articles. I’m used to seeing a condensed list of articles that shows each article title and time of posting (akin to email). In Unread, however, you see the article title, name of the website, time of posting, the first few sentences of the article, and, if there is an image as part of the article, then the image is shown as well.

Unread is not dense.

Unread App - Article List View

At first, this less-dense view irked me. But I quickly acclimated to it and now prefer it, even look forward to it.

Scrolling is free. In a context where I am assessing each individual article to decide if I want to read it or not, viewing just 2 or 3 article summaries on the screen at a time can be just as efficient as viewing 5 or 6 headlines. In fact, I’d argue that this less-dense list view is more efficient. For one, it presents more data per article, allowing you to read a bit of the article to help with your decision to drill down and read it in its entirety or not. And secondly, it is far easier to make a choice between 2 options than 6.

Quibbles

I do have a few nits to pick, however.

  • As it is now, when you are done reading an article, you can not go directly on to the next unread article. It would be nice to be able to go from one unread article to the next without having to go back to the list first.

  • By default, unread items persist in the list of articles (in a grayed-out state). You can get around this by tapping directly on the unread item count in a list instead of tapping on the list’s name in which you will see only the unread items in the list. However, I wish this behavior were reversed.

  • When you’re going to read a web page, the previously-loaded web page is there waiting for you until the new one comes up. Something about this feels slow or unconsidered to me.

Hooked

It was the design of Unread that hooked me right away — the app is clean, friendly, and warm, and all its type is set in Whitney — but the more I used it the more I began to appreciate and enjoy the functionality and feature decisions built into the app.

Unread is refreshingly simple and elegant. If you subscribe to RSS feeds and read them on your iPhone, take some time and use Unread for a while — I think you’ll be glad you did.

* * *

You can get Unread on the App Store (still propagating) for just $2.99.

Great Typefaces of 2013

This is a guest post, written by my good friend, Josh Farmer.



I may have a mild form of Aspergers, which makes me somewhat awkward in social situations. This is especially true when I get into nerdy conversations about very specific topics I enjoy. Typefaces are one of those topics.

What follows is an alphabetical listing of great typefaces from 2013. I hope it gets you thinking about how to branch out more into the world of type, whether in your creative ventures or as an informed reader.

Alverata by Gerard Unger

Alverata

Gerard Unger, one of the patriarchs of modern type design, is still going strong. For part of his Ph.D., he created Alverata as a new take on Romanesque forms. Inscription is the basis for this face, which can be seen in its sharp, short serifs and flared forms.

Alverata comes in three weights (Regular, Informal, and Alternates), each with their own purpose and feel. The Regular is just what it says on the tin: basic characters that play well with eleventh- and twelfth-century history. The Informal set introduces an unexpected softness with such things as a single-story a and calligraphic terminals. The Alternate weight is made for all kinds of medieval scenarios, goth lite logos, or maybe the next dragon movie.

Bree Serif by Veronika Burian & José Scaglione

Bree Serif

The extremely popular upright italic, Bree, got a charming seriffed cousin this year. All the personality is alive and well in Bree Serif, and now it has the added benefit of working in more scenarios.

Bree began as the typeface based on TypeTogether’s logo; it was an expansion of the e–T ligature Veronika created for their wordmark. The spry upright italic has been one of their most adored and most used typefaces since its creation. Bree Serif began as a Google Fonts project and matured into a full-fledged counterpart to Bree that comes in 12 weights and speaks multiple languages. It still has the looped g, y, and z that everyone recognizes and it includes alternate forms. As readable in text sizes as it is distinct in headlines, Bree Serif puts a pair of modern glasses on Bree’s face. We all know it’s our fun-loving friend, but now we know she’s serious about having a fun night out.

Domaine by Kris Sowersby

Domaine

What can I say about this type family? It’s gorgeous. Every curve is considered, every sharp point inviting. Its high class contrast will steal the money right out of your wallet and you will be all the richer for it. Seriously. Your type IQ will increase by using Domaine, which will cause others to rush to join your elite fan club. (Elite fan club not included.) Domaine is classy, erudite, and still fun. Its characters look like they began with a paintbrush and were finished with pen. It’s James Bond with a loosened tie.

FF Dora by Slávka Pauliková

FF Dora

Yet another strong release from FontFont, the team behind fontshop.com. FF Dora’s hybrid personality mixes the freedom of brush strokes with the restraint needed for a text serif. It strikes me as a contender to the great Skolar family, though it has only six weights so far. I love seeing the bulge created by the turns of the brush at the baseline when retracing a stem, such as with the italic m. Other lovely touches: the asymmetrical dot on the i, the inktraps on stem–curve joins, the italic k, the wide stance of the typeface itself, and how the stems are slightly flared.

The display version takes every aspect three steps further, daring you to slather its personality across something mundane. And who doesn’t love the section and dagger symbols? The only improvement I would have requested is more alternates for each character to expand the painterly possibilities. And ponies and world peace, but one thing at a time.

Exquise FY by FontYou

Exquise FY

Exquise is great when you want some pizzazz with your Didone substitute. I love the diagonal modified terminals that curve in on themselves, the numerous beautiful ligatures, and the gently curved strokes that finish off some letters, such as the lower- and uppercase k, v, and w. Due to these qualities, Exquise is elegant when used large and it won’t let you skip too quickly when used smaller in text.

Haven’t heard of FontYou? Think of it as a font hub where you can submit your type doodles, see those from others, vote, and then buy the ones that get awsome-ized (that is, made into real typefaces). It’s your neighborhood farm-to-market fonts that you can have a hand in creating. This is organic at its finest.

Kumla by Göran Söderström

Kumla

Söderström has put out some fantastic typefaces over the years, such as Trim, Siri, Heroine, and FF Dagny — each with a very specific goal in mind. Now we are treated to the best remake of something worthy of a Russian version of Star Trek.

This high-waisted typeface feels that way thanks to the shallow bowl on the R and P, the quick curve of the S, and how the N connects its two stems. Use it in place of Eurostile, as a futuristic replacement for Helvetica (gasp, sacrilege!), as a more industrial version of Neo Sans, or to create some unforgettable branding.

MVB Solitaire by Mark van Bronkhorst

MVB Solitare

Sometimes what you need isn’t so much a show stopper as a workhorse that blends into an overall scheme. Web historians might put Verdana and Lucida in that do-it-all wallflower category. Hoefler & Frere-Jones and Mark Simonson have winners in this category with Whitney and Proxima Nova, respectively. MVB Solitaire belongs in that dignified grouping. Its enormous x-height means it’s easy to set as small as you want without any worries about legibility, and the lowercase g takes on different personalities in each weight.

MVB Solitaire is a straight shooter with just enough personality to pair well with almost anything. This means that, though no one would put these faces in the same category, MVB Solitaire can stand in equally well for Gill Sans, Myriad, Futura, or Verdana.

Magasin by Laura Meseguer

Magasin Typeface

Magasin is a friendly connected script based on the flattened oval. That geometric foundation makes way for the connections to be seen, and the separated strokes show how each letter was formed. As for me, I love the pilcrow, British pound, and Registered symbols. If you ever get the chance to rebrand the Madeline cartoon and they’re ready to change the hand-drawn wordmark, put Magasin on the list.

Dieter Hofrichter of hoftype.com

Fonts by Hofrichter

Dieter Hofrichter gets the award as one of the most prolific typeface producers each year. Last year he released 11 faces; this year it was six, of which my eye is drawn to Capita, Foro Rounded, Quant, and Qubo.

Granted, some releases are rounded versions of typefaces Hofrichter has already created, but that doesn’t make his productivity any less impressive. His typefaces are great for setting a textual tone and are optimized for setting medium or long texts, so try one of his to replace your normal text face. How easy is this to do? Super easy, because Hoftype usually gives away one weight of each new family for free. Keep an eye on Hoftype next year. Who knows how many new faces we will be graced with in 2014.

Remo by Thomas Thiemich

Remo

Oh, happy retinas, Remo is here! Thiemich has a way of crossing categories better than almost anyone in type design today. I was immediately drawn to his exhaustive Alto type family, with its friendly inner raindrop shape and variety of widths and weights. He’s back once again showing off his serious design skills and his eye for what works across several decades of type design. If a relaxed geometric is what you need, instead of another strict redrawing on a grid, Remo is it.

Thiemich started with strict geometry, but then moved on with more charm and maturity than you would expect from a turn-of-the-century typeface. Each stroke is pushed toward the outside of the block of space it inhabits, so the thin glyphs feel like they maintain about the same area as the heavy weights. If Remo were alive, I’d imagine it got frozen in time as it inhaled.

Check out the difference between the thin and light weights of the M; the center apex moved down. The curls added to the a, d, and l, along with the cheery s, create gentility. The low-waisted R, Y, and S are begging for some Broadway attention, but don’t pigeonhole it to 1920s New York; the a, J, Q, and l would never feel at home there. And that’s the genius of this type family — it fits multiple styles like a glove. I love the descending italic f and the face’s enormous x-height, but you might be just as happy to replace the overused Futura. Or Univers. Or Avenir. Or Mr. Eaves. Or Broadway, you Windows users who still want to use the marching ants effect. When you’re ready to get a typeface that can handle so many different decades, Remo is your man. This typeface makes me happy.

Sauna Mono by Underware at underware.nl

Sauna Mono

Forget the days of coding headaches. Sauna is interesting to look at — even fun. So far, monospaced typefaces have been bitmappy, annoying, and just horrid. Nitti put a dent in that universe but didn’t truly change the expectation. Sauna Mono is the answer to, “And what normal person would ever want to look at a coding font for hours each day?” Someone who is staring at Sauna Mono, that’s who. Sauna has personality and good looks; it’s definitely not your grandma’s mono, which sounds weird now that I’ve said it. Classy, readable, and with another text and display family just waiting to be discovered. If you do any coding behind the scenes or screenwriting important scenes, you should check Sauna Mono out. Why not do your job well and love the typeface you’re using at the same time? And I do mean love. Don’t just take whatever mono Sublime Text has packaged, get something you will love. Sauna Mono fits this bill.

Supernova by Martina Flor

Supernova

Ever since Lettering vs. Calligraphy took the font world by storm, I’ve been waiting to see a brush script come from Martina Flor’s hand. Supernova is her brilliant release that doesn’t lose one ounce of energy, regardless how it’s used.

Supernova’s most amazing feature? It’s readable. Yes, it actually works in short- to medium-length text. She made five weights specifically for text and one with more expressiveness for use in huge sizes, appropriately called the poster weight. She then added a few alternates for each glyph and some decorative elements such as curls, frames, slathers, and dollops. My gut feeling is that she had to force herself to stop adding alternates and decoration. Supernova is cheeky and vibrant. It’s perfect for packaging and will also add some much-needed charm to the neutral or overwrought geometric typeface you were forced to pick by some faceless committee. Not that this has ever happened to me you.

Zulia by Joluvian and Ale Paul

Zulia

Zulia is an expressive, legible paintbrush face with great alternates. Quick turns and extended swashes are the easiest to notice, but look at the downward strokes for a lesson in controlled speed. This typeface is precisely what Sudtipos are known for.

* * *

A final thought. I’m making two calls: This will be the year of the alternate glyphs, and a year of focusing more on multilingualism in type.

We’ve seen much of these before, but I think it’s increasing substantially. We’ve seen type designers create awesome things from scratch and breathe new life into entire categories, so now I think many designers will use alternate glyphs to distinguish themselves and their typefaces. We’ve seen a bit of this in the past, especially with well done scripts such as Underware’s Liza. Lately there’s been a trend toward sans and serif families with a greater range and the ability to switch tones. Alternates for characters such as a, g, e, s, and l provide just such a tonal distinction. Read Kris Sowersby’s article on Metric & Calibre to see how easily and effectively tone can be changed through just a few letters. I’m guessing this will become standard practice, in tandem with a long-awaited multilingualism for major releases, in which type families are created from the start with something more than the Latin alphabet as the driving force. What would the Latin alphabet look like if it came through the filter of the Cherokee language first? Little experiments like this are happening all the time, and I think the world sees better with pluralistic, artistic glasses on.

So here’s to this past year in typefaces and to the great start of 2014. Because, in case you didn’t know, just since I began writing this article several more typefaces were released. And that’s great news.

Grandpa’s iPad

My grandpa is legally blind. He can see, but poorly. When he reads books they are the extra large print editions, and he holds them so close they’re practically resting on his nose. And when he watches an old western film from his VHS collection he sits about two feet away from his big-screen TV.

Last weekend, while in Colorado visiting family, we had a big family dinner at my parents’ house. I loaded my 2-year-old son, Noah, into the car and we drove to pick up my Grandpa from his apartment and bring him over for dinner.

My Grandparents’ homes were always filled with seemingly floor to ceiling photos of family. And his current apartment is no different. There are picture frames on the table and on the desk and on the dresser, and snapshots of grandchildren have been printed out (with the help of more tech-savvy relatives) and thumb-tacked to the walls.

At the apartment, I held Noah while my Grandpa gathered his things — his coat, hat, and walker. And, a new item now: his iPad.

The iPad was a gift from my aunt. It’s a 3rd generation and she doesn’t use it that often so she gave it to him hoping he could use it. (Perhaps as a giant remote control for the TV?)

But my Grandpa discovered a use for it that none of us had considered. It is the best camera he’s ever owned.

Before leaving the apartment, Noah and I had to pose for a picture. Holding the iPad about 10 inches in front of his face, my Grandpa snapped a few photos.

I know there are people out there who take pictures using their iPads, because I’ve seen — ahem — pictures of them doing it. But I’ve always thought it a bit funny and awkward.

And there I was. Posing to have my picture taken with an iPad.

At first, I wanted to snicker. But how could I? If my Grandpa wants to use an iPad to take a picture of his grandson and great grandson, then who cares? Certainly not me.

Back at my parent’s house, my Grandpa continued to spend the first part of the evening taking everyone’s picture. Several of my cousins were there, and many of us don’t get to see my Grandpa more often than every couple of months, if not longer. It was a prime time for snapshots.

Later, Noah quickly warmed up to my Grandpa thanks to the iPad. (As any parent knows, iPads and iPhones are captivating to a toddler. Noah is already quite fluent with iOS and has been sliding to unlock since before he could walk.) The iPad was a way for my Grandpa to spend some time with Noah at his side, as the two of them flipped through the camera roll.

With a smile, I’ve been thinking about that evening for the past week.

My Grandpa’s iPad has enabled him to do something that he’s been unable to do for as long as I can remember. The 9.7-inch touch screen has turned my Grandpa into a photographer.

The screen is large enough that he can see well enough to actually frame and take pictures. And then he has them right there, on that same large screen, where he can browse through them any time he wants.

To me, that’s pretty magical.

Introducing The Weekly Briefly Podcast

This week I’m launching a new podcast: The Weekly Briefly.

(Though, if we’re going to be technical about it, it’s not really a new podcast… It’s more like a new spin on my current podcast.)

I’ve been recording and publishing my members-only podcast, Shawn Today, since February 2011. As of this morning I have published 467 episodes. Over the years, topics have run mostly parallel to topics here on shawnblanc.net — such as software, productivity and time management, photography, design, and more. But I’ve also talked about things I don’t write about, such as impostor syndrome, finances and budgeting, life as a dad, and more. On more than one occasion, Shawn Today has been the seedbed for future articles and reviews here on shawnblanc.net. (Last summer, Shawn Today was even the seedbed for an entire book.)

With Shawn Today now entering its 4th season, I want to change things up a bit. Here’s why:

  • I very much enjoy doing Shawn Today, but I wanted to expand the show’s reach and add something new to the mix to see what would happen.
  • The Weekly Briefly is a way for those who aren’t members to still listen to my podcast (albeit a weekly version instead of the daily), and a way for me to put some of my podcasts out there for anyone and everyone. Because, I believe ideas that spread, win.
  • For those who are members, but who don’t keep up with the daily episodes, now you have an easier target if you want: just listen to the once-a-week show.
  • Hopefully this once-a-week public episode will draw in new subscribers to the members-only daily podcast.

If you’re already listening to Shawn Today, there’s no need to subscribe to The Weekly Briefly because the latter will double as the Friday episode of the former.

My deepest and most sincere thanks to all the subscribing members of this site who listen to the show, give feedback, and enhance the conversation. You’ve made the past 467 episodes of Shawn Today a possibility, and I am very much looking forward to what the next 467 episodes have in store.

Remarkable Things

Good marketing can get customers in the door the first time, but it’s a great product that keeps them coming back (and bringing their friends with them).

When someone tells their friend about a great gadget they’ve been using or a non-profit they’ve been supporting, that word-of-mouth marketing carries far more weight than a hundred advertisements.

Here are a handful of things which I personally find awesome for one reason or another and have recommended to more than one person on more than one occasion:

  • iPhone: A revolution in mobile computing and software.

  • iPad: The new personal computer that you can hold with one hand, gets 12 hours of battery, has an internet connection anywhere there’s cell service, and is easy and simple to use for many tasks.

  • Field Notes: Simple little pocket notebooks that carry a ton of personality.

  • AeroPress: A coffee-making contraption that is easy to use, easy to clean up, fits in your kitchen cabinet (instead of taking up a square foot of counter space) and just so happens to make very delicious coffee.

  • Mirrorless cameras: Small, compact, affordable cameras that are capable of taking photos on par with big, bulky, expensive cameras.

  • Editorial: Took the Geeky iPad Writing Market by storm with all of its powerful and fancy features that make writing for the web easier and faster.

  • Instapaper: Equal parts tool and placebo, Instapaper lets us save things we want to read later. Sometimes we actually get around to reading those articles when we’re in a better setting and/or have the time. Other times we never get around to reading the items we’ve saved, but having a place to save those things in the moment helps us move on with our day, guilt-free.

  • Parisi coffee: A new-ish coffee shop down the road from me that makes consistently delicious coffee and has a very friendly staff.

  • Twitter, Instagram, (and Facebook): Changed the way we communicate, share, and connect with our friends.

  • Netflix: It started out as a cheap service where you could get all the DVDs your heart desired sent right to your house. Then it turned into a cheap service where you could stream a whole bunch of movies any time you wanted (and you didn’t have to have a cable TV subscription).

  • Settlers of Catan: A semi-geeky strategy game that’s geeky enough for board game enthusiasts to enjoy while also being easy enough for everyone else to enjoy as well.

I’ve found that some common factors amongst remarkable things include simplicity, focus, personality, delight, nostalgia, and/or excellence.

There isn’t a 1-2-3 recipe for building something other people will want to talk about. And though it’s certainly not easy, neither is it impossible.

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